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Why Hunter-Gatherers’ Work Was Play

Why Hunter-Gatherers’ Work Was Play

2023-12-12 09:52:30

Pricey mates,

Our phrase work has two completely different meanings. It will probably imply toil, which is disagreeable exercise; or it will possibly imply any exercise that accomplishes one thing helpful, whether or not or not the exercise is nice. We use the identical phrase for each of those meanings, as a result of, in our tradition, the 2 meanings usually overlap. To a substantial diploma, we view life as a means of doing disagreeable work to attain needed or desired ends. We toil at college to get an training (or, extra precisely, a diploma); toil at a job to get cash; and should even toil at a health club (“work out”) to supply higher muscle tone. Typically we take pleasure in our work at college, job, or health club—and we deem ourselves fortunate after we do—however our dominant cultural psychological set is that work is toil, which we do solely as a result of now we have to or as a result of it brings desired ends. Work on this sense is the other of play.

In Letter #24 I described the situations in our personal society wherein some fortunate folks describe their work—their means of constructing a dwelling—as play. I first got interested within the concept of labor as play over twenty years in the past once I delved into others’ analysis regarding band hunter-gatherers and located that hunter-gatherer “work” was extremely playful, perhaps even absolutely play.

In Letter #21 I defined my curiosity in hunter-gatherer societies and talked about the survey I carried out a few years in the past of anthropologists who had studied such societies in numerous remoted elements of the world. This way of life is now almost destroyed, however as lately because the second half of the twentieth century anthropologists might discover and research teams in remoted elements of the world nonetheless dwelling a somewhat pristine hunter-gatherer lifestyle. In Letter #21 I described hunter-gatherers’ extremely egalitarian lifestyle, involving intense cooperation and sharing, and summarized my principle that they maintained their egalitarian methods partly by fostering the playful aspect of their human nature. Playfulness, as I had argued in a sequence of letters previous that one, counteracts tendencies towards aggression and dominance and promotes cooperation.

Then, in Letter #22, I described the playful nature of hunter-gatherer religions and defined how they each mirrored and helped to foster a cooperative, egalitarian type of life. Now, on this letter (a considerably revised model of an essay first printed in my Psychology Immediately weblog here), I describe the playful nature of hunter-gatherer work.

By all accounts, hunter-gatherers didn’t have an idea of labor as toil (Gowdy, 1999). They didn’t confound productiveness with unpleasantness. They did, after all, interact in lots of productive actions, which have been essential to maintain their lives. They hunted, gathered, constructed and mended huts, constructed and mended instruments, cooked, shared info, and so forth. However they didn’t regard any of this as burdensome. They did this stuff as a result of they wished to. Based on some researchers (e.g. Gould, 1969, Gowdy, 1999, Lee, 1988), hunter-gatherer teams didn’t actually have a phrase for work as toil, or, in the event that they did, it utilized to what neighboring farmers, miners, road-builders and different non-hunter-gatherers did, to not what they have been doing.

My studying about life in many alternative hunter-gatherer cultures has led me to conclude that their work was play for 4 major causes: (1) There was not an excessive amount of of it. (2) It was various and required a lot talent and intelligence. (3) It was completed in a social context, with mates. And (4) most importantly, it was, for any given particular person at any given time, elective. Let me broaden on these, level by level.

One contributing issue to the play-like high quality of hunter-gatherer work is that the work was not extreme. Based on a number of quantitative research, hunter-gatherers usually devoted about 20 hours per week to searching or gathering and one other 10 to twenty hours to chores on the campsite, corresponding to meals processing and making or mending instruments (e.g. Lee, 1972; Sahlins, 1972 ). All in all, the analysis suggests, hunter-gatherer adults spent a mean of 30 to 40 hours per week on all subsistence-related actions mixed, which is significantly lower than the workweek of the standard fashionable American, if the American’s 40 or extra hours of paid employment is added to the hours spent on home chores.

 The brief workweek turns into much less shocking after we take into consideration how hunter-gatherers made their dwelling. Hunter-gatherers, by definition, didn’t plant or domesticate crops or have a tendency animals; they only harvested. With that lifestyle, lengthy hours of labor can be counterproductive. Harvesting wild animals and vegetation sooner than their regeneration price would deplete nature’s meals provide and eventuate in both mass hunger or a necessity to maneuver ever farther, into new, uncharted, presumably harmful territory. Furthermore, with out means for long-term meals storage, there was no worth in harvesting greater than can be consumed inside a brief interval after its harvest. There was additionally no worth in spending a lot of time producing materials items. Possessions past what an individual might simply keep it up lengthy treks from one campsite to a different can be burdens, not luxuries.

 One anthropologist, Marshall Sahlins (1972), famously characterised hunter-gatherer societies collectively as “the unique prosperous society.” An prosperous society, by Sahlins’s definition, is one wherein “folks’s materials needs are simply glad.” Hunter-gatherers have been prosperous not as a result of they’d a lot, however as a result of they wished so little. They may present for these needs with comparatively little work, and, in consequence, had a lot of free time, which they spent, in response to one observer of the Ju/’hoansi (Shostak, 1981), at such actions as “singing and composing songs, enjoying musical devices, stitching intricate bead designs, telling tales, enjoying video games, visiting, or simply mendacity round and resting.” These are simply the sorts of actions we’d anticipate of comfortable, relaxed folks wherever.

Aside from the overall distinction between males as hunters and girls as the first gatherers (a distinction that holds for many however not all hunter-gatherer societies), hunter-gatherers didn’t specialize. Everybody was concerned in a lot of the society’s financial actions. Furthermore, most of these actions required nice talent, data, and intelligence.

Anthropologists have marveled on the huge talent and intelligence proven by hunter-gatherers of their searching. The instruments of searching—corresponding to bows and arrows, blowguns and darts, spears, or nets—have to be crafted to perfection; and talent in utilizing these instruments successfully have to be developed by means of years of play with them. Hunters additionally realized the habits of the maybe two to a few hundred completely different species of mammals and birds they hunted. They needed to determine every animal by its sounds and tracks in addition to sight.

A ebook has been written on the thesis that the monitoring of sport by hunters marked the origin of what we as we speak name science (Liebenberg, 1990). Hunters used marks they noticed within the sand, mud, or foliage as clues, mixed with their accrued data from previous expertise, to develop and take a look at hypotheses about such issues as the dimensions, intercourse, bodily situation, pace of motion, and time of passage of the animal they have been monitoring. In describing the monitoring talents of the Ju/’hoansi hunter-gatherers of Africa’s Kalahari Desert, Alf Wannenburgh (1979) wrote: “Every part is observed, thought-about, and mentioned. The kink in a trodden grass blade, the route of the pull that broke a twig from a bush, the depth, dimension, form, and disposition of the tracks themselves, all reveal details about the situation of the animal, the route it’s shifting in, the speed of journey, and what its future actions are prone to be.”

The gathering of vegetable foodstuffs likewise required a lot data and talent. Hunter-gatherers needed to know which of the numerous kinds of roots, tubers, nuts, seeds, fruits, and greens of their space have been edible and nutritious, when and the place to seek out them, how you can extract the edible parts effectively (within the case of grains, nuts, and sure plant fibers), and in some circumstances how you can course of them to make them edible or extra nutritious than they in any other case can be. These talents included bodily abilities in addition to the capability to recollect, use, add to, and modify an unlimited retailer of culturally shared verbal data.

In our society, too, work that’s various, requires a lot talent and data, and entails clever decision-making is loved way more and thought of extra play-like than work that’s routine and boring (see Letter #24).

We’re a extremely social species. We wish to be with different folks, particularly with these we all know as mates. Hunter-gatherers lived very social lives. Practically all of their actions have been public. Most of their work was completed cooperatively, and even solo actions have been completed in social settings, with others round. And—as a result of hunter-gatherers have been extremely cell people, who moved to a different band in the event that they didn’t just like the folks they have been at present dwelling with—their bands have been really friendship teams. Normally, something we people do with mates is extra play-like than issues we do alone or with collaborators who aren’t actually mates.

Males often hunted in groups; and girls often foraged collectively. Regarding the latter, Wannenburgh (1979) wrote, of the Ju/’hoansi bands he studied, “In our expertise the entire gathering expeditions have been jolly occasions. With the [Ju/’hoansi’s] present of changing chores into social events, they usually had one thing of the ambiance of a picnic outing with kids.” In an outline of the means by which Batek folks selected duties and fashioned work teams every day, Kirk Endicott (1979) wrote: “They might be totally completely different teams from these of the day gone by, for the Batek like selection each of their work and their companions.”

And now I attain essentially the most essential ingredient of play—the sense of selection. Play, by definition, is elective; it’s one thing we select to do, not one thing now we have to do (see Letter #2). How did hunter-gatherers keep the sense of selection in regards to the work they did?

Clearly, in an final sense, hunter-gatherers’ work was not elective. As a band, they needed to hunt, collect, make instruments, construct huts, and so forth to outlive. Nonetheless, for any given particular person, on any given day, these actions for essentially the most half have been elective. As I famous in Letter #21, hunter-gatherers in all places maintained a rare ethic of private autonomy, to a level that will appear radically excessive by our requirements. They intentionally averted telling each other how you can behave, in work as in another context. Every particular person was his or her personal boss.

On any given day at a hunter-gatherer campsite, a searching or gathering get together may kind. The get together was composed solely of those that wished to hunt or collect that day. That group determined collectively the place they might go and the way they might method their activity. Anybody made sad by the choice was free to kind one other get together, or hunt or collect alone, or keep at camp all day, or do something in any respect that was not disruptive to others. There was no retribution for backing out. An individual who didn’t hunt or collect nonetheless obtained an equal share of no matter meals was introduced again. By adopting this technique, hunter-gatherers averted being held again, of their foraging, by somebody who was there begrudgingly and had a nasty perspective about it.

Hunter-gatherers didn’t appear to be involved about what we Westerners think about to be the “free-rider drawback,” the concept some reap an equal portion of the good points with out contributing equally to the work. In a single recorded case, a single man acquired almost 80% of the meat for your complete band for a month whereas 4 different males did no searching in any respect, but these 4 have been apparently not excluded or criticized (Hawkes, 1993). Within the system of hunter-gatherer ethics there may be nice social strain to share, however to not produce. The genius of that is that it retains the actions of manufacturing throughout the realm of play by disassociating them from extrinsic rewards.

Finally, after all, searching and gathering have been essential to the band’s survival. Everybody knew that, and that little doubt influenced folks’s selections of what to do.  My guess is that if the hunter who introduced in 80% of the meat one month had been much less profitable, others would have gone out and picked up the slack.  However for essentially the most half, on any given day, the choice of what to do is every particular person’s selection, freely made, with no strain.

What a special perspective hunter-gatherers had than we! To us, it appears virtually sinful that somebody who does much less work than others ought to obtain as a lot of the bounties as anybody else. However that’s as a result of we consider work as toil. If produce requires toil, then those that toil essentially the most ought to get essentially the most. If somebody is lazy and would not toil, they don’t deserve the rewards. That is our idea of justice, and it is a cheap one if we consider work as toil. However what if we considered work as play, one thing enjoyable. With that perspective, why ought to those that get essentially the most intrinsic rewards from play—as a result of they take pleasure in it a lot, and are so expert at it, and due to this fact take part in it essentially the most—additionally reap essentially the most extrinsic rewards from it?

Economists and behavioral psychologists alike have a tendency to consider life as a matter of give-and-take, cost-and-benefit, effort-and-reward. From this view, work is what you do for a profit. If somebody will get the profit with out having completed the work, one thing is mistaken. Economists and behavioral psychologists usually discuss of this as whether it is important human nature. However they’re mistaken. So far as we are able to inform, hunter-gatherers have been dwelling for tens of hundreds of years, perhaps a whole bunch of hundreds, earlier than the arrival of agriculture, with no idea of reward for work completed. They didn’t conceive of life by way of price and profit. They noticed it, as a substitute, as a playful journey. You do issues as a result of they’re enjoyable, and also you share the bounty with everybody you realize, no matter what these folks have been doing. Exactly due to that perspective, folks willingly and joyfully did the work that wanted to be completed, all as a part of play.

The general title of this Substack is Play Makes Us Human. We’re absolutely human after we are enjoying, and if work is play we’re absolutely human as we work. For hunter-gatherers, work was humanizing, not dehumanizing, and so it may be for us. We’ve gone by means of an terrible interval of post-hunter-gatherer historical past wherein many have been enslaved or just about so, and lots of if not most jobs have been correctly thought-about toil. However we could also be rising from that now. In principle, no less than, the toil as we speak will be completed by machines and we must be free to do the artistic, social, joyful duties. That could possibly be the fact. In my subsequent letter I’ll think about the query of why it’s not the fact it must be.

When you have questions or ideas about something on this letter, please share them within the feedback part under. I learn all feedback and reply once I assume I’ve one thing price saying.

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See Also

[Note: I have modified settings so paid subscribers (only paid subscribers) can send me an email by replying to the email containing any of my substack letters. The main purpose of this is to allow such subscribers to alert me to any comment they have made on a letter, so I can reply to that comment. To preserve my time, I will refrain from private email discussions.]

With respect and greatest needs,


Endicott, Ok. (1979). Batek Negrito Faith: The World-View and Rituals of a Looking and Gathering Individuals of Peninsular Malaysia, 163-164.

Gould, R.A. (1969). Yuwara: Foragers of the Australian Desert.

Gowdy, J. (1999) “Hunter-Gatherers and the Mythology of the Market,” in R.B. Lee & R. Daly (Eds.), The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunters and Gatherers, 391-398.

Hawkes, Ok. (1993). “Why Hunter-Gatherers Work: An Historic Model of Public Items,” Present Anthropology, 34 (1993), 341-361.

Lee, R.B. (1988). “Reflections on Primitive Communism,” in T. Ingold, D. Riches & J. Woodburn (Eds.), Hunters and Gatherers I.

Lee, R.B. (2003). Dobe Ju/’hoansi, third ed.

Liebenberg, L. (1990). The Artwork of Monitoring: The Origin of Science.

Sahlins, M. (1972), Stone Age Economics.

Shostak, M. (1981). Nisa: The Life and Phrases of a !Kung Girl.

Wannenburgh, R. The Bushmen (1979).

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