Pre-publication draft; please do not quote or circulate. P. Gray, Play in Hunter-Gatherers p 3
Play as a Foundation for Hunter-Gatherer Social Existence
I am a developmental/evolutionary psychologist with a special interest in play. Some time ago, I began reading the anthropological literature on hunter-gatherer societies in order to understand how children’s play might contribute to children’s education in those societies. As I read, however, I became increasingly fascinated with hunter-gatherer social life per se. The descriptions I read, by many different researchers who had observed many different hunter-gatherer groups, seemed to be replete with examples of humor and playfulness in adults, not just in children, touching all realms of hunter-gatherers’ social existence. It became increasingly apparent to me that play and humor lay at the core of hunter-gatherer social structures and mores. Play and humor were not just means of adding fun to their lives. They were means of maintaining the band’s existence—means of promoting actively the egalitarian attitude, intense sharing, and relative peacefulness for which hunter-gatherers are justly famous and upon which they depended for survival. In this article I shall present evidence, from the research literature, that play provided a foundation for hunter-gatherers’ modes of governance, religious beliefs and practices, approaches to productive work, and means of education.
Hunter-gatherers occupy a unique place in anthropologists’ and psychologists’ attempts to understand human nature and human adaptability. During the great bulk of our history as a species, we were all hunter-gatherers. Our uniquely human traits are, presumably, adaptations largely to that way of life. Agriculture first appeared a mere 10,000 years ago.1 The question of just how long humans existed before that has no firm answer, because it depends on how we want to define “humans.” The line of primates that led to our species split off from that which led to our closest ape relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos, about six million years ago. By four million years ago, our ancestors were walking upright, and by two to one million years ago they had much larger brains than did other apes, built fires, made tools, lived in social groups, and survived by hunting animals and gathering roots, nuts, seeds, berries, and other plant materials.2 If we take, arbitrarily, a million years ago as the beginning of human history, then for 99 per cent of that history we were all hunter-gatherers.
The hunter-gatherer way of human life is now almost completely extinguished, pushed out by intrusions from agriculture, industry, and modern ways generally. But as recently as the 1960s and ‘70s, and to some extent even later, anthropologists could find and study hunter-gatherers who had been very little affected by modern ways. Anthropologists who have studied such societies have classified them into two general categories. The societies discussed in this article fall into the category that are referred to variously as immediate-return hunter-gatherers, simple hunter-gatherers, or egalitarian hunter-gatherers. These societies have low population densities; live in small, mobile bands, which move regularly from place to place within large but relatively circumscribed areas; do not condone violence; are egalitarian in social organization; make decisions by consensus; own little property and readily share what they do own; and have little occupational specialization except those based on gender.3
The other category of hunter-gatherer societies, which is smaller in number and is typified by the Kwakiutl of the American northwest coast and the Ainu of Japan, are referred to variously as collector societies, delayed-return hunter-gatherers, complex hunter-gatherers, or non-egalitarian hunter-gatherers. In a chapter distinguishing the two categories, Robert Kelly characterizes the collector societies as having “high population densities, sedentism or substantially restricted residential mobility, occupational specialization, perimeter defense and resource ownership, focal exploitation of a particular resource (commonly fish), large residential group size, inherited status, ritual feasting complexes, standardized valuables, prestige goods or currencies, and food storage.” He adds that they “also tend to have high rates of violence and