Pre-publication draft; please do not quote or circulate. P. Gray, Play in Hunter-Gatherers p 4
condone violence as legitimate.”4 Not all hunter-gatherer groups fall clearly into one or the other of these two categories. Some Inuit groups and some groups in New Guinea, for example, seem to fall between the two.5
In this article my focus is on societies that most clearly fit the immediate-return definition. Throughout the article I shall, as do some researchers, use the term hunter-gatherer society, unmodified, to refer exclusively to those hunter-gatherer societies that fall into the immediate-return category, and I shall use the term collector society to refer to the more complex, delayed-return hunter-gatherer societies.
Hunter-gatherer societies (of the immediate-return variety) are, of course, not all carbon copies of one another. They have different languages, different ways of hunting and gathering, different rituals, and so on. Recently, specialists in hunter-gatherers have focused attention on the differences among them, to counter the tendency in decades past to overemphasize the similarities. Yet, in basic ways regarding their social structure and social attitudes (to be discussed shortly), they are remarkably similar to one another, whether they exist in Africa, Asia, Australia, or South America. 6 This similarity among groups that are so widely separated geographically, and that occupy such diverse habitats (ranging from dry, sparsely vegetated grasslands to rich, humid forests), gives us some confidence that they are also likely to be similar to hunter-gatherer societies that existed in pre-agricultural times. Archeological evidence also suggests that societies of this type long predated delayed-return societies, which seem to have first appeared in the Upper Paleolithic (about 40,000 years ago).7
The hunter-gatherer groups that I refer to by name in this article are the Ju/’hoansi (also called the !Kung, of Africa’s Kalahari Desert), Hazda (of Tanzanian rain forest), Mbuti (of Congo’s Ituri Forest) Aka (of rain forests in Central African Republic and Congo), Efé (of Congo’s Ituri Forest), Batek (of Peninsular Malaysia), Agta (of Luzon, Philippines), Nayaka (of South India), Aché (of Eastern Paraguay), Parakana (of Brazil’s Amazon basin), and Yiwara (of the Australian Desert). The group that has been studied and written about most fully, by the largest number of different investigators, and with the most vivid detail, are the Ju/’hoansi. (The si at the end of Ju/’hoansi makes the term plural and is used with reference to the people as a whole; the singular noun and adjectival form is Ju/’hoan.) Because they have been so richly described, more of my examples come from this group than from any other. However, I also present many examples from other groups and, when possible, refer to reviews of multiple hunter-gatherer groups in order to document general claims.
In describing the practices of hunter-gatherer groups, on the following pages, I shall use the ethnographic present, that is, the present tense referring to the time when the studies were conducted, not today. Many of the practices described here have since been obliterated, or are well on route to being obliterated, along with the cultures themselves.
Before proceeding further, I feel compelled to insert a caveat—a caveat that should not be necessary, but perhaps is. The word “play” has some negative connotations to people in our culture, especially when applied to adults. It suggests something trivial, a diversion from work and responsibility. It suggests childishness. So, in the past, when people referred to the “playfulness” of the indigenous inhabitants of one place or another, the term was often a put-down or, at best, a left-handed compliment. In truth, hunter-gatherer life can be very hard. It is certainly not all fun and games. There are times of drought and famine; early deaths are common; there are predators that must be dealt with. People grieve when their loved ones die. People take losses seriously and take seriously the necessity to plan for emergencies and respond appropriately to them. My point, as you will see, is that play is used not to escape from but to confront and cope with the dangers and difficulties of a life that is not always easy.