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#21. The Play Theory of Hunter-Gatherer Egalitarianism
Hunter-gatherers countered the human drive to dominate by cultivating the equally powerful human drive to play.
In the last three letters, I contended that a major evolutionary function of play is to promote cooperation among individuals who live in the same social group. In Letter #18 I explained how social play in any species requires cooperation, and I referred to evidence that animal species that must cooperate to survive, such as pack-hunting wolves, play more than do those that have less need to cooperate. In Letter #19 I presented evidence that our close cousins the bonobos play more with one another than do our equally close cousins the chimpanzees and live more peacefully than do chimps. In Letter #20 I referred to evidence that different species of macaque monkeys vary in the degree to which they are “egalitarian” (cooperative and tolerant) versus “despotic” (aggressive and steeply hierarchical) and that the former are more playful than the latter. In all these examples, play seems to promote long-term bonding and relatively peaceful living. Now I turn attention to the primate species that we humans (selfishly) are most interested in—ourselves.
Roughly 25 years ago I became interested in human hunter-gatherer societies. My initial goal was to learn about children’s lives and the relationships between children and adults in those societies. Toward that end, along with my then graduate student Jonathan Ogas, I conducted a survey of ten anthropologists who, among them, had lived among and written about seven different hunter-gatherer societies on three different continents. I also read as much as I could find at the time about children’s lives in such societies.
Hunter-gatherers are of interest to those of us who bring an evolutionary perspective to our research into human nature, because for the great bulk of our evolutionary history we were all hunter-gatherers. Agriculture was first developed a mere 11,000 years ago. So, our human nature, our collection of instinctive drives and tendencies, would have evolved in the context of a hunting and gathering way of life.
Today, to my knowledge, there are no pristine hunter-gatherer societies. All known groups have been influenced, often considerably, by contact with post-hunter-gatherer groups. However, as recently as the 1950s into the 1980s it was possible for researchers to trek out into isolated parts of the world and find groups of hunter-gatherers who had been almost untouched by more modern ways of living. The anthropologists we surveyed had done their research primarily during this period
The groups that could be found and studied in this period were in the hunter-gatherer category referred to as band hunter-gatherers. They lived in small autonomous bands, of roughly 20 to 50 individuals including children. They did not have permanent dwellings, as they moved from place to place within a large but circumscribed area to follow the available game and vegetation. They had few material goods, as anything they could not easily carry on their backs would be a burden. At each place to which they moved they built temporary huts for shelter, often arranged around a central gathering area. Although the bands governed themselves independently, they were in frequent contact with adjacent bands and had relatives in those bands. [Note: I use the past tense because the observations I describe were made decades ago and some of the practices appear be less true today.]
The Egalitarian Nature of Band Hunter-Gatherer Societies
The more I learned about band hunter-gatherers the more I became interested in their egalitarian ways of living. Indeed, another term commonly used by anthropologists for such societies is egalitarian societies. They are by far the most egalitarian human societies that have ever been found (Ingold, 1999). Their way of life required continuous cooperation and sharing within the band and, especially during times of hardship, sharing be=tween bands. They hunted and gathered cooperatively, cared for children cooperatively, and shared food and other resources. They did not have chiefs of big men, nor bosses and followers. They made decisions affecting the whole band through long discussions aimed at consensus. It was apparently taboo in such societies to tell another person what to do, as to do so would be to act as if you were in some way better than them or had power over them.
How did they maintain their egalitarian way of living? Almost everywhere we look, outside of band hunter-gatherers, we see that humans organize themselves hierarchically. We see it in the governments of all states and nations, with their top-down structures of power. We see it in businesses, where bosses tell employees what to do. We see it in schools, where principals tell teachers what to do and teachers tell students what to do. We see it in gangs and in many sorts of male gatherings, where boys or men jockey, sometimes violently, for status or dominance. But we don’t see it in band hunter-gatherers. How did they control what would appear to be an innate human tendency to try to dominate one another? What was their magic formula?
The Reverse Dominance Theory of Hunter-Gatherer Egalitarianism
Some, who have a rosier view of human nature than do I, might think that we humans are by nature egalitarian and were so until modern social developments corrupted us. But that is not the story coming from anthropologists. Their writings make it clear that hunter-gatherers were actively, not passively egalitarian. Indeed, in the words of anthropologist Richard Lee (1988, p 264), they were “fiercely egalitarian.” They actively resisted any attempt, by anyone, to lord it over anyone else or to hoard food or other goods rather than share.
Based on such observations, anthropologist Christopher Boehm (1993,1999) developed what he calls the reverse dominance theory of hunter-gatherer egalitarianism. His theory is that hunter-gatherers everywhere learned to turn the dominance hierarchy upside down, so the band as a whole would act against any individual who acted in a domineering or selfish way. They used teasing, pointedly, to make fun of the person’s transgression, and if the transgressions persisted they would move on to ridicule, shunning, and threats of ostracism. At the extreme, they might banish a domineering person from the band. On the very rare occasions when even banishment didn’t work, where the offender continued to hang around and use violence to dominate others, they might, if it were the only solution, stop the perpetrator with capital punishment or the threat of it. They had, of course, no prisons, so they had no other way to stop someone who could not be dissuaded from violence.
Boehm presents a strong case for this theory, and I have no doubt that he is correct. But my reading of the hunter-gatherer literature led me to think that reverse dominance is not the whole story. What struck me as I read one account after another about life in hunter-gatherer bands was how playful the people were and how rarely they had to turn to truly punitive means to prevent dominating behavior and preserve their egalitarian ways (Gray, 2009). This led me to develop the play theory of hunter-gatherer egalitarianism (Gray, 2014).
The Play Theory of Hunter-Gatherer Egalitarianism
In brief, the play theory is that band hunter gatherers, no matter where they lived, learned over their long history to promote cooperation and sharing by fostering the playful side of their human nature. As I explained in previous letters, social play requires cooperation, fairness, and the setting aside of dominance.
The reports to anthropologists, including those in our survey, convinced me that essentially all of social life for hunter-gatherers was suffused with play. Their games and dances were highly cooperative and playful, their myths and religious practices were playful. Their approaches to hunting and gathering were playful. Even their means of dealing with disruptive members of their group was largely playful and went further only when play did no work. And perhaps most significantly, their young educated themselves largely through play and grew up in a spirit of play.
If you grow up playing, if you view all of life in a playful way, if you see everyone in your social group as playmates, then there is little or no room for dominance behavior. As I have been contending over the last three letters, social play and dominance are incompatible. Social play is the antidote to dominance.
This letter is just an introduction to the play theory of hunter-gatherer egalitarianism. In letters to come I will elaborate on their playful ways, including their dances and games, their playful religious beliefs and practices, their playful means of hunting and gathering, their playful ways of settling disputes, and how children educated themselves and acquired the ideal character traits of their society through play.
I am focusing attention on hunter-gatherers because I think we can learn from their examples. Of course, we cannot return to a hunter-gatherer way of life, but many of the ways that hunter-gatherers used play to promote cooperation and peace can, with conscious effort, be applied in modern societies. I plan to bring attention to these ways in future letters.
As always, I welcome your thoughts and questions in the comments section below. They will add to the value of this letter. If you aren’t already subscribed to this Substack series, please subscribe now, and let others who might be interested know about it. By subscribing, you will receive an email notification of each new letter.
Boehm, C. (1993). Egalitarian behavior and reverse dominance hierarchy. Current Anthropology, 34, 227-254.
Boehm, C. (1999). Hierarchy in the forest: The evolution of egalitarian behavior. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Gray, P. (2009). Play as a foundation for hunter-gatherer social existence. American Journal of Play, 1, 476-522.
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.
Ingold, T. (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, 399-410. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Lee, R. B. (1988). Reflections on primitive communism. In T. Ingold, D. Riches & J. Woodburn (Eds.), Hunters and gatherers 1. Oxford: Berg.