Egalitarian Immediate-Return Band Hunter-Gatherers

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Peter Gray:

“This is a condensed version of a larger article that appeared in the American Journal of Play (Gray, 2009,).

Analysis of the anthropological literature suggests that hunter-gatherers use play and humor, more or less deliberately, to make their highly egalitarian mode of existence possible. Their methods of governance and sharing, religious beliefs and practices, and productive work are playful; and their children educate themselves through play.

The focus in this article is on band hunter-gatherers, also known as immediate-return or egalitarian hunter-gatherers (as contrasted with the more sedentary, hierarchically organized hunter-gatherer groups referred to variously as collector, delayed-return, or non-egalitarian hunter-gatherers). Wherever they are found, band hunter-gatherers (hereafter referred to simply as hunter-gatherers) live in small, mobile bands that move regularly from place to place within large but relatively circumscribed areas; do not condone violence; are egalitarian in social organization; make decisions by consensus; own little property; readily share what they do own; and have little occupational specialization except those based on gender (Kelly, 1995).

The pure hunter-gatherer way of life is now largely extinguished, pushed out by agriculture, industry, and modern ways generally. But throughout much of the last half of the 20th century, anthropologists could find and study hunter-gatherers who had been very little affected by modern ways. Examples of such groups 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). Although these and other hunter-gatherer groups still exist, the cultures have changed and many of the practices described in this article have been modified or obliterated. The present tense throughout his article refers to the “ethnographic present,” that is, to the time at which the observations were made.

Throughout this article the terms “play” and “playful” refer to activity that is

  • (1) self-chosen and self-directed;
  • (2) intrinsically motivated;
  • (3) structured by mental rules;
  • (4) imaginative; and
  • (5) produced in an active, alert, but non-stressed frame of mind.

Playfulness can vary in degrees; the more fully an activity contains all of these characteristics, the more playful it is considered to be. “ (