Play Makes Us Human V: Why Hunter-Gatherers' Work is Play
Hunter-gatherers made work play by making it optional.
Posted Jul 02, 2009
Our word work has two meanings. It can mean any unpleasant activity; or it can mean any productive or useful activity, regardless of its pleasantness or unpleasantness. The first of these meanings is the opposite of play; the second is not. We use the same word for the two meanings, I suppose, because in our culture's history the two meanings have so often overlapped. Productive activity conducted by slaves, servants, and hired hands with no sense of choice about what they are doing indeed is work in both senses of the term.
To keep the two concepts distinct, so we can think about them separately, let's use the term toil for the first meaning (unpleasant activity) and work for the second. With this terminology, toil is the opposite of play, but work is not. Work can be toil, or it can be play, or it can lie anywhere on a continuum between the two.
In last week's post, I described the characteristics of work, and the attitudes toward it, that allow many people in today's society to experience their work as play. Now I want to expand on those ideas by describing hunter-gatherers' toil-less manner of sustaining themselves.
As I noted in the introductory post*, this whole series on "Play Makes Us Human" was inspired by my immersion in the research literature on hunter-gatherer band societies. Wherever they have been studied—in isolated parts of Africa, Asia, South America, Australia, and elsewhere—such societies have been found to be extraordinarily playful. Today, such societies are mostly destroyed, or in transition to something quite different, but I use the present tense (sometimes called the "anthropological present") to describe them, as remnants of them do still exist. In past posts, I have shown *(a)* how hunter-gatherer children educate themselves through play; *(b)* how hunter-gatherers use play and humor to maintain a social and economic system founded on principles of sharing, cooperation, individual autonomy, and equality; and *(c)* how playfulness runs through hunter-gatherers' religious beliefs and practices in ways support their egalitarian approach to life.
In general, hunter-gatherers do not have a concept of toil. When they do have that concept, it derives apparently from their contact with outsiders. They may learn a word for toil to refer to the work of their neighboring farmers, miners, or road construction workers, but they do not apply it to their own work. Their own work is simply an extension of children's play. Children play at hunting, gathering, hut construction, toolmaking, meal preparations, defense against predators, birthing, infant care, healing, negotiation, and so on and so on; and gradually, as their play becomes increasingly skilled, the activities become productive. The play becomes work, but it does not cease being play. It may even become more fun than before, because the productive quality helps the whole band and is valued by all.
My reading about life in many different hunter-gatherer cultures has led me to conclude that their work is play for four main reasons: (1) It is varied and requires much skill and intelligence. (2) There is not too much of it. (3) It is done in a social context, with friends. And (4) (most significantly) it is, for any given person at any given time, optional. Let me expand on these, point by point.
Hunter-Gatherers' Work is Playful Because It Is Varied and Requires Much Skill, Knowledge, and Intelligence.
Except for the general distinction between men as hunters and women as the primary gatherers (a distinction that holds for most but not all hunter-gatherer societies), hunter-gatherers do not specialize. Everyone is involved in most of the society's economic activities. Moreover, most of these activities require great skill, knowledge, and decision-making ability.
Anthropologists have marveled at the enormous skill and intelligence shown by hunter-gatherers in their hunting. The tools of hunting—such as bows and arrows, blowguns and darts, spears, or nets—must be crafted to perfection; and skill in using those tools effectively must be developed through years of play with them. Hunters must also learn the habits of the perhaps two to three hundred different species of mammals and birds that they hunt, which the children do in part through games of imitating the animals around them. They learn to identify each animal by its sounds and tracks as well as by its sight.
A book has been written on the thesis that the tracking of game by hunters marked the origin of what we today call science. Hunters use the marks they see in the sand, mud, or foliage as clues, combined with their accumulated knowledge from past experience, to develop and test hypotheses about such matters as the size, sex, physical condition, speed of movement, and time of passage of the animal they are tracking. In describing the tracking abilities of the Ju/'hoansi hunter-gatherers of Africa's Kalahari Desert, Alf Wannenburgh wrote: "Everything is noticed, considered, and discussed. The kink in a trodden grass blade, the direction of the pull that broke a twig from a bush, the depth, size, shape, and disposition of the tracks themselves, all reveal information about the condition of the animal, the direction it is moving in, the rate of travel, and what its future movements are likely to be."
The gathering of vegetable foodstuffs likewise requires great knowledge and skill. Hunter-gatherers must know which of the countless varieties of roots, tubers, nuts, seeds, fruits, and greens in their area are edible and nutritious, when and where to find them, how to dig them (in the case of roots and tubers), how to extract the edible portions efficiently (in the case of grains, nuts, and certain plant fibers), and in some cases how to process them to make them edible or more nutritious than they otherwise would be. These abilities include physical skills, honed by years of practice, as well as the capacity to remember, use, add to, and modify an enormous store of culturally shared verbal knowledge.
In our society, too, work that is varied, that requires much skill and knowledge, and that involves much decision-making is enjoyed far more and considered more play-like than work that is simply routine. The assembly line is the enemy of playful work. Fortunately, with robots to do assembly work, the least playful sorts of jobs are largely behind us and we are moving toward a world in which most work, once again, has the potential to be play.
Hunter-Gatherers' Work is Playful Because There Isn't too Much of It.
Anthropologists have often pointed out that hunter-gatherers' work is skill-intensive but not labor-intensive. Research studies suggest that hunter-gatherers work somewhere between 20 and 40 hours a week, on average, depending on just what you count as work. Moreover, they do not work according to the clock; they work when the time is ripe for the work to be done and when they feel like it. There is ample time in hunter-gatherers' lives for leisure activities, including games of many sorts, playful religious ceremonies, making and playing musical instruments, singing, dancing, traveling to other bands to visit friends and relatives, gossiping, and just lying around and relaxing. The life of the typical hunter-gatherer looks a lot like your life and mine when we are on vacation at a camp with friends.
It's amazing when you think about it. During the 10,000 years since the onset of agriculture and then industry, we have developed countless laborsaving devices, but we haven't reduced our labor. Today, most people spend more time working than did hunter-gatherers, and our work, on average, is less playful.
Hunter-Gatherers' Work Is Playful Because It Is Done in a Social Context, With Friends.
We are a highly social species. We like to be with other people, especially with those we know well; and we like to do what our friends do. Hunter-gatherers live very social lives. Nearly all of their activity is public. Most of their work is done cooperatively, and even that which is done individually is done in social settings, with others around. And—because hunter-gatherers are highly mobile people, who move to another band if they don't like the people they are currently living with—their bands are truly friendship groups. In general, anything that we humans do with friends has more of a spirit of play than things we do alone or with collaborators who aren't really friends.
Men usually hunt in ways that involve teamwork; and women usually forage in groups. Concerning the latter, Wannenburgh wrote, of the Ju/'hoansi bands he studied, "In our experience all of the gathering expeditions were jolly events. With the [Ju/'hoansi's] gift of converting chores into social occasions, they often had something of the atmosphere of a picnic outing with children." In a description of the means by which Batek people choose tasks and form work groups each day, Kirk Endicott wrote: "They may be entirely different groups from those of the previous day, for the Batek like variety both in their work and their companions."
Hunter-Gatherers' Work is Playful Because Each Person Can Choose When, How, and Whether to Do It.
And now I reach the most crucial ingredient of play—the sense of choice. Play, by definition, is optional; it is something that we choose to do, not something that we have to do. How do hunter-gatherers maintain the sense of choice about the work they do?
Clearly, in an ultimate sense, hunter-gatherers' work is not optional. As a band, they must hunt, gather, make tools, build huts, and so on if they are going to survive. However, for any given person, on any given day, these for the most part are optional. As I noted in an earlier essay, hunter-gatherers everywhere maintain an extraordinary ethic of personal autonomy, to a degree that may seem radically extreme by our standards. They deliberately avoid telling each other how to behave, in work as in any other context. Each person is his or her own boss.
On any given day at a hunter-gatherer camp, a hunting or gathering party may form. The party is made up only of those who want to hunt or gather that day. That group decides collectively where they will go and how they will approach their task. Anyone made unhappy by the decision is free to form another party, or to hunt or gather alone, or to stay at camp all day, or to do anything at all that is not disruptive to others. There is no retribution for backing out. A person who doesn't hunt or gather will still receive his or her share of whatever food is brought back. By adopting this strategy, hunter-gatherers avoid being held back, in their foraging, by someone who is there only begrudgingly and has a bad attitude about it. And because they adopt this strategy, all members of the band can experience their hunting and gathering as play.
On any given day, a band member may join a foraging group, or visit friends in another camp, or just stay in camp and relax, depending on what he or she feels like doing. Such freedom does open up the possibility of free-riding by individuals who choose not to hunt or gather over an extended period of time, but such long-term shirking apparently happens rarely if at all. It is exciting to go out hunting or gathering with the others, and it would be boring to stay in camp day after day. The fact that on any given day the work is optional and self-directed keeps it in the realm of play. I'm sure that the perceived necessity to obtain food and accomplish other essential tasks influences people's decisions about what to do, but the sense of necessity does not dominate, on a day-to-day basis, and therefore does not destroy the sense of play.
The genius of hunter-gatherer societies, from my perspective, lies in their abilities to accomplish the tasks that must be accomplished while maximizing each person's experience of free choice, which is essential to the spirit of play. They manage to accomplish that through their extraordinary willingness to share everything, which removes any immediate link between work and the receipt of life's necessities. Even the most industrious and successful hunters and gatherers receive no more of the food brought back to camp on a given day than does anyone else in the band.
What a different attitude they have than we! To us, it seems almost sinful that someone who does less work than others should receive as much of the bounties as anyone else. But that is because we think of work as toil. If produce requires toil, then those who toil the most should get the most. If someone is lazy and doesn't toil, they should not get the rewards. That's our concept of justice, and it's a reasonable one. But now, what if we thought of work as play, something that we want to do just because it's fun. With that attitude, why should those who get the most intrinsic rewards from play—because they enjoy it so much, and are so skilled at it, and therefore participate in it the most—also reap the most extrinsic rewards from it?
Economists and behavioral psychologists alike tend to think of life as a matter of give-and-take, cost-and-benefit, effort-and-reward. From this view, work is what you do for a benefit. If someone gets the benefit without having done the work, something is wrong. Economists and behavioral psychologists often talk of this as if it is essential human nature. But they are wrong. As far as we can tell, hunter-gatherers were living as they do now—without a concept of reward for work done—for hundreds of thousands of years before the advent of agriculture. They did not conceive of life in terms of cost and benefit. They saw it, instead, as a playful adventure. You do things because they are fun, and you share the bounty with everyone you know, regardless of what those people have been doing. Precisely because of that attitude, people willingly and joyfully did the work that needed to be done, all as part of play.
One way of thinking about all this involves the concept of trust. Hunter-gatherers simply trust that, as long as work is play and as long as people are treated well and are truly free to make their own decisions, the great majority of people will quite gladly contribute to the band in the ways they can.
I'm not suggesting that we can import the hunter-gather approach whole cloth into our current culture. I'm sure that can't be done. But there are areas where this way of thinking would make life more fun for all of us. Think about it. When I approach my work with others as play, I don't mind doing more than the others, for no more extrinsic rewards than they get. The rewards of play lie in the doing, not in the end.
See my new book, Free to Learn.
Notes  Documentation for the points made in the following paragraphs can be found in my post, *"Play as the foundation for hunter-gatherer social existence," American Journal of Play, 1, 476-522, 2009.* In these paragraphs I have used some of the same wording that I used in that article.  Louis Liebenberg, The Art of Tracking: The Origin of Science (1990).  Alf Wannenburgh, The Bushmen (1979), p 41.  Wannenburgh, Bushmen, p 30.Hu  Kirk Endicott, Batek Negrito Religion (1979), p 16.