Pre-publication draft; please do not quote or circulate. P. Gray, Play in Hunter-Gatherers p 27
The research literature on hunter-gatherers makes it clear that their egalitarian, non-autocratic, highly cooperative way of living did not occur just naturally. It cannot be attributed simply to benign human nature, corrupted in us by modern social institutions. Nor did it occur as a passive result of a combination of human nature and the environmental conditions in which hunter-gatherers survived. That combination may have necessitated, and enabled, the hunter-gatherers’ approach to social life, but it did not automatically produce that approach. Hunter-gatherers everywhere seem to have been acutely sensitive to the possibility that, at any time, hierarchical, dependent, dominance relationships could arise within their society and destroy the equality and unselfish sharing upon which their survival depended. To prevent that from happening they developed cultural practices aimed at reinforcing their egalitarianism and nipping in the bud any tendencies toward hierarchy and domination. To me, the striking, unifying aspect of the practices they developed lies in the degree to which they involved play or playfulness.
In this article I have presented examples, from the research literature on hunter-gatherers, to show (a) how the fluid structure and consensual decision-making processes of hunter-gatherer bands resemble those of social play groups, which people are free to join or leave at a moment’s notice; (b) how humor and laughter are used as leveling and peace-keeping devices; (c) how the rules of hunter-gatherer societies, particularly the rules for sharing, are like the rules of social play; (d) how hunter-gatherer religious stories and rituals emphasize the playful, comic nature of the deities and reinforce the notion of equality within the cosmos; (e) how hunter-gatherers arrange their subsistence-essential work in a manner that retains the spirit of play; and (f) how hunter-gatherer childcare and educational practices are structured so as to maximize children’s opportunities for play and minimize any sense of their being dominated by adults.
One way to think about hunter-gatherers’ uses of play is to suppose that our species, by nature, has two fundamentally opposing ways of structuring social interactions, which we inherited from our mammalian ancestors. One way of structuring them is the method of dominance. The literature on mammalian social behavior, particularly that on primate social behavior, is replete with discussions of dominance hierarchies and struggles for status. Dominance hierarchies give structure to the social interactions within animal colonies and prevent the chaos that would occur if each new opportunity for food, or for mating, resulted in a renewed struggle. The other way of structuring social interactions is what I will call the method of social play.
Play in the animal world always involves the temporary renunciation of dominance. Social play remains play only so long as both (or all) of the players participate willingly, so play is destroyed by dominance and coercion. Most mammalian social play takes the form of playful fighting and chasing. Such actions can remain playful only so long as nobody is hurt and the needs of all participants are met. When two young monkeys or chimpanzees engage in a play fight, the stronger one deliberately self-handicaps, and the “fight” is not a fight in the sense of establishing a winner or loser. The playful “combatants” alternate in taking defensive and offensive positions, and they refrain from using their teeth or other weapons in a manner that could hurt the other. In playful chases, the two take turns in chasing and being chased, like children playing tag. In play, each animal must continuously behave in such a way as to meet the needs of the other, while still satisfying it’s own needs. Failure to do that would terminate the game. So, during play, a new sort of relationship emerges between individuals, one that is based not on power assertion, but on power restraint and sensitivity to the needs of the other player.82
My primary argument in this article is that hunter-gatherers, everywhere, developed cultural practices that combated the human tendency toward dominance by maximizing the human