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The Play Theory of Hunter-Gatherer Egalitarianism

Play counters the tendency to dominate, in humans and in other mammals.

Rawpixel Ltd, Creative Commons
Source: Rawpixel Ltd, Creative Commons

Anthropologists who have trekked to isolated regions of the world to observe hunter-gatherer societies—whether in Africa, Asia, South America or elsewhere—have consistently been impressed by the egalitarian nature of those societies (e.g. Ingold, 1999). The people live in small self-governing bands of about 20 to 50 people per band. They are nomadic, moving from place to place to follow the available game and edible vegetation.

Most remarkably, unlike any other people that have been studied, hunter-gatherers appear to lack hierarchy in social organization. They have no chief or big man, no leaders or followers. They share everything, so nobody owns more than anybody else. They make all group decisions through discussion until a consensus is reached. In fact, another name that anthropologists regularly use to refer to band hunter-gatherer societies is egalitarian societies. As part of their egalitarianism, they have an extraordinary degree of respect for individual autonomy. They don’t tell one another what to do or offer unsolicited advice. Elsewhere I have described how this egalitarian ethos underlies even their interactions with young children (Gray, 2012 and here).

Wherever else we look in the human world, outside of band hunter-gatherers, we see hierarchical structures, in which some people dominate others. Pre-state agrarian tribes are headed by chiefs; modern governments are headed by leaders, elected or not, that have the power to dominate. We see hierarchy in the workplace, where bosses tell employees what to do. We see it in gangs and in all sorts of formal or informal gatherings, especially of boys and men, who jockey, sometimes violently, for dominance. We see it in schools, where principals tell teachers what to do and teachers tell students what to do. We see it in families where parents dominate children. We also see dominance hierarchies almost everywhere we look in other primates, with alpha individuals (generally males) on top and frequent fighting for status.

It would seem from all this that we humans, or more generally all of us primates, are predisposed genetically to live in dominance hierarchies in which individuals, especially males, more or less continuously strive to move up in the hierarchy. But if that is so, then how do hunter-gatherers manage to live in their egalitarian way? Genes can’t account for that difference. Indeed, people just a generation or so away from being hunter-gatherers, who now live in agricultural societies, often quickly lose their egalitarian tendencies and fall into dominance patterns.

The Reverse Dominance Theory of Hunter-Gatherer Egalitarianism

The writings of anthropologists make it clear that hunter-gatherers are not passively egalitarian, but are actively so. They have to work at resisting their own and others’ tendencies to dominate. They do not tolerate anyone acting like they are better than others.

In fact, one anthropologist (Lee, 1988) with long experience living among hunter-gatherers has described them as “fiercely egalitarian.” Apparently, the hunter-gatherer way of life, which requires continual close cooperation and sharing in order to survive, simply requires that the people figure out a way to suppress or counter the drive to try to dominate. That may explain why they do it; but, now, how do they do it?

The leading theory of how hunter-gatherers maintain their egalitarian way of life is the reverse dominance theory, developed by anthropologist Christopher Boehm (1993). His theory is that hunter-gatherers have not abolished dominance but have, instead, turned it on its head. According to Boehm, the hunter-gatherer band as a whole acts as a dominating force, to suppress the behavior of any individual who begins to act in a domineering manner. They use ridicule, shunning, and threats of ostracism to counteract anyone who begins to act as if he or she is better than others or has a right to tell others what to do. At the extreme, they might banish a domineering person from the band.

A great deal of evidence supports Boehm’s theory, and I have no doubt that it is correct. Among other things, it fits very well with the repeated observation that hunter-gatherers are “fiercely egalitarian.” I have developed the play theory of hunter-gatherer egalitarianism not as a counter to the reverse dominance theory, but as a supplement to it. I think that another way that hunter-gatherers maintain their egalitarian ways is by deliberately cultivating that aspect of human (and mammalian) nature that most effectively suppresses the drive to dominate—playfulness.

The Play Theory as Applied to Non-Human Animals

In my chapter, I worked toward the play theory of hunter-gatherer egalitarianism by beginning with observations about the role of play in suppressing dominance behavior in other animals. [For the details and elaboration, see the original chapter (Gray, 2014), but here is a summary.]

The drive to play came about in mammalian evolution primarily as a means for the young to practice the skills they need to survive (see Gray, 2019). However, in order for two or more young animals to play together, they must suppress the drive to dominate one another. Social play always requires the voluntary participation of both (or all) partners, so play requires that the partners maintain one another’s goodwill. Any attempt to dominate would drive the other away or elicit a fight rather than play. Thus, play involving two or more players is always an egalitarian, cooperative activity.

Wikipedia, Creative Commons
Play Bow
Source: Wikipedia, Creative Commons

In order to play, animals that might otherwise attack one another must signal that they will not attack; they will play instead. For wolves and other canids, for example, the play, nonattack signal is the play bow, in which the animal crouches down on forelimbs, elevates on hindlimbs, and may raise its neck in a vulnerable manner. If you have a dog you have probably witnessed this as the dog prepares to play with, rather than fight with, another dog. For primates, the play signal is the relaxed open-mouth display, or play face, which is homologous to playful laughter and smiling in humans.

Among most mammals social play is common only for the young, as a way for them to practice essential skills, but in some mammals social play persists into adulthood and, in at least some, takes on a new function, that of enabling two or more individuals to cooperate with one another rather than struggle for dominance (see Gray, 2019). For example, adult males and females in many species “court” one another by playing together, as a way of suppressing aggression so they can cooperate for mating.

Some of the most compelling evidence for the anti-dominance function of adult play comes from research with various species of primates. For example, some species of macaque monkeys (referred to as tyrannical species) live in sharply graded hierarchical colonies, with a great deal of squabbling and fighting for power and relatively little cooperation except among close kin; and other species (egalitarian species) live in colonies with more muted hierarchies, with little fighting and much cooperation even among non-relatives. Consistent with the theory I am presenting here, the egalitarian species have been observed to engage in more social play in adulthood than the tyrannical species, apparently as a means to promote cooperation (Reinhart et al, 2010).

Another example comes from research on bonobos (which are tied with chimpanzees as our closest ape relatives). Female bonobos cooperate much more fully with one another than do male bonobos. Such cooperation allows them to work together to fend off aggressive attacks from males, even though the males are much larger and stronger. Consistent with the theory that play promotes cooperation, female bonobos are far more likely to play with one another in adulthood than are male bonobos (Palagi, 2006).

The Play Theory of Hunter-Gatherer Egalitarianism

Now, finally, we come to the theory as applied to hunter-gatherers. My theory is that hunter-gatherers everywhere learned that they could reduce aggression and promote cooperation and sharing by essentially turning all of their social life into play. (I have presented the evidence for the playfulness of hunter-gatherer social existence in previous articles (Gray, 2009; 2014).)

Children growing up in hunter-gatherer cultures have more opportunity to play than do children growing up in any other culture that anthropologists have observed (Gray, 2012), and as they become adults their playful ways continue. Hunter-gatherers’ approach to work (e.g. to hunting and gathering) is playful in that it is social (people hunt and gather with friends, in groups) and always voluntary—nobody is required to hunt or gather, they will be fed anyway. Their religions are playful, highly imaginative and non-dogmatic, with gods that are vulnerable and serve as playmates in religious festivals. The adults, as well as children, engage regularly and playfully in music, dance, art, and noncompetitive games.

Even their means of putting down someone’s budding attempts to dominate are playful, at least at first. They may make up a silly song about the person, as a way of making fun of the person’s excessive pride, or they may tease him about thinking he’s such a “big man.” If the early humor doesn’t work, however, the teasing may become more pointed and less playful.

I would like the play theory of hunter-gatherer egalitarianism—and the more general theory of the role of play in promoting cooperation—to become better known. We are, unfortunately, raising our children now without much play, and they are going into adulthood without much playfulness. Maybe that, in part, is why we are so bad at cooperating. Wouldn’t it be great if we could get the Democrats and Republicans in Congress to "play" with one another? There was a time when they did, at least to some degree, and at that time they were able to cooperate to get useful legislation passed.


And now, what do you think? Have you used humor or play to quell aggression or promote cooperation? Was it effective? In your experience are playful people less domineering than non-playful people? This blog is, in part, a forum for discussion. Your questions, thoughts, stories, and opinions are treated respectfully by me and other readers, regardless of the degree to which we agree or disagree. Psychology Today no longer accepts comments on this site, but you can comment by going to my Facebook profile, where you will see a link to this post. If you don't see this post near the top of my timeline, just put the title of the post into the search option (click on the three-dot icon at the top of the timeline and then on the search icon that appears in the menu) and it will come up. By following me on Facebook you can comment on all of my posts and see others' comments. The discussion is often very interesting.

This is a summary of my chapter “The Play Theory of Hunter-Gatherer Egalitarianism” from a book about human evolution. See Gray, 2014, in References.


Boehm, C. (1993). Egalitarian behavior and reverse dominance hierarchy. Current Anthropology, 34, 227-254.

Gray, P. (2009). Play as a foundation for hunter-gatherer social existence. American Journal of Play, 1, 476-522.

Gray, P. (2012). The value of a play-filled childhood in development of the hunter-gatherer individual. In Narvaez, D., Panksepp, J., Schore, A., & Gleason, T. (Eds.), Evolution, Early Experience and Human Development: From Research to Practice and Policy, pp 252-370. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gray, P. (2014). The play theory of hunter-gatherer egalitarianism. In D. Narvaez, K. Valentino, A. Fuentes, J. McKenna, & P. Gray (Eds.), Ancestral landscapes in human evolution: culture, childrearing and social wellbeing, pp. 190-213. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gray, P. (2019). Evolutionary functions of play: Practice, resilience, innovation, and cooperation. In P. K. Smith & J. Roopnarine (Eds.), The Cambridge Handbook of Play: Developmental and Disciplinary Perspectives, pp 84-102. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Ingold, I. (1999). On the social relations of the hunter-gatherer band. In R. B. Lee & R. H. Daly (Eds.), The Cambridge encyclopedia of hunters and gatherers, pp. 399-410. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Lee. R. B. (1988). Reflections on primitive communism. In I. Ingold, D. Riches & J. Woodburn (Eds.), Hunters and gatherers I, (pp. 252-268. Oxford, UK: Berg.

Reinhart, C. J., Pellis, V. C., Thierry, B., Gauthier, C-A., VanderLaan, D. P., Vasey, P. L., & Pellis, S. M. (2010). Targets and tactics of play fighting: Competitive versus cooperative styles of play in Japanese and Tonkean Macaques. International Journal of Comparative Psychology, 23,166-200.

Palagi, E. (2006). Social play in bonobos (Pan paniscus) and chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes): Implications for natural social systems and interindividual relationships. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 129, 415-426.

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