Play and the Origins of Art

In the middle of the last century, anthropologists discovered something surprising: supposedly “primitive” hunter-gatherers like the Aborigines of Arnhem Land, in Northern Australia, and the !Kung San of the Kalahari, in Southern Africa, spent only about 20-something hours a week providing for themselves—foraging and hunting—and the rest of their time hanging out. Interestingly, our closest relatives in the wild, chimpanzees, spend about 27 percent of their time foraging and the rest sleeping, socializing, chilling, and playing.

Such observations suggest that ancient hunter-gatherers may have been default Dudeists.

Which means that they weren’t like modern Westerners. We’re more like Thoreau’s property-owning kinsmen:

“How many a poor immortal soul have I met well-nigh crushed and smothered under its load, creeping down the road of life, pushing before it a barn seventy-five feet by forty, its Augean stables never cleansed, and one hundred acres of land, tillage, mowing, pasture, and woodlot!”

Thoreau’s pal Emerson put it this way: “Things are in the saddle and ride mankind.”

But it wasn’t always so. Life came to be that way with the emergence of settlement agriculture, the city-state, and coercion by authorities within the hierarchies that ran these first “civilizations.”

Ohiye S’a, aka Charles Eastman, the Santee Dakota physician, wrote a book called The Soul of the Indian to explain to white people what native religion was like before the coming of Europeans. In a moving passage in this 1913 book, he explains why the Indian wasn’t poor, despite not having a lot of material possessions:

“His religion forbade the accumulation of wealth and the enjoyment of luxury. To him . . . the love of possession has appeared a snare, and the burdens of a complex society a source of needless peril and temptation. Furthermore, it was the rule of his life to share the fruits of his skill and success with his less fortunate brothers. Thus he kept his spirit free.”

It seems reasonable to assume that many of our ancient ancestors kept things simple and had a lot of time on their hands. So, what did they do with this time?

Well, among the very earliest human artifacts that we have are body paints, cave paintings, carved figurines, necklaces and earrings, drums, flutes, pipes, and lyres. The oldest dildo we’ve unearthed dates to 30,000 years ago, and we’ve found a double dildo almost as old (See Taylor, Timothy. The Prehistory of Sex. NY: Bantam, 1997).

Oh, and our ancient ancestors danced a lot. Mircea Eliade, the great historian of sacred traditions, saw the origins of religion in the ecstatic rain dances of chimpanzees, which mingle awe and fear.

And they used hallucinogens (‘shrooms, for example) and narcotics in astonishing variety and created art and sacred spaces to encode their psychonautical experiences (See The Mind in the Cave, by D. Lewis-Williams; Inside the Neolithic Mind, by D. Lewis-Williams and D. Pearce; and The Road to Eleusis, by R. Gordon Wasson).

And they made poetry.

In every culture, around the globe, the earliest linguistic materials we have that are not simply accounting records for commodities stored or traded—stuff that survived in oral traditions long enough to be eventually carved in stone or bone or written on papyrus or bark—is not instrumental or utilitarian in nature—not instructions for building a dwelling or irrigating a field, but poems. And what were these like? Well, they are charms and riddles and jokes and songs of praise of heroes and gods, and they typically have about them an elevated, transported, ecstatic quality—as though the speaker were possessed, entranced, inhabited by a god speaking through him or her. This was what language in its earliest instantiations did. In every language, the word for spirit and wind is the same. And the word for inspiration.

Moderns look at the elaborate nest built by the bower bird and concoct a mechanical explanation: these are the result of a genetic mutation that led some ancient male bower bird to place a bright stone in the nest, which attracted a mate, which led to more male power bower birds with that gene, which led to elaboration through competition. Blah blah blah. They imagine, stupidly, that speaking of the male FIGURING OUT that the female TOOK PLEASURE in such decorations would be anthropomorphizing. Darwin knew better. He wrote a wonderful big book called The Expression of Emotion in Humans and Animals stressing the emotional continuity between us and the rest of animal creation. But our anthropocentrizing scientists still don’t seem, many of them, to have gotten the memo.

In his great book Pleasurable Kingdom, Jonathan Balcolmbe describes crows who slide, over and over, for the sheer joy of it, down slanted rooftops; elephants who tramp for miles to feast on rotten fruits in order to become happily drunken; and chimpanzees who sit in a circle and pass around a type of cockroach to suck on—one that secretes a hallucinogenic substance.

Birds dance and do home decoration. Chimps pass a roach around. Our closest wild relatives, Bonobos, spend almost all their time, very happily, in physical play and sex with other Bonobos of both genders. Our earliest ancestors, in ecstatic transport, danced and sang (Chimps stand transfixed and then begin to dance ecstatically on first noticing a coming rainstorm.)

The masters of the New Feudal Order here in the good old USA don’t want us spending much time doing stuff like that. No ecstatic rain-dancing for you!!! They want you and me to spend our time producing and consuming and piling on debt, ever more abundantly, so that THEY can spend THEIR time doing stuff like that.

Thus the Puritanism of American culture. There’s an old joke that’s much to the point: Why do Baptists disapprove of sex before marriage? Answer: They’re afraid it will lead to dancing.


P.S. Play, btw, is serious business, if by “serious” you mean that it serves valuable functions. In fact, it serves MANY of the personal and social functions that religions do. For comparison, here’s a little piece on the many theories about the origins of religion:

Copyright 2018. Robert D. Shepherd. All rights reserved.

For more by Bob Shepherd on art and for some of his artwork, go here:


About Bob Shepherd

interests: curriculum design, educational technology, learning, linguistics, hermeneutics, rhetoric, philosophy (Continental philosophy, Existentialism, metaphysics, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, epistemology, ethics), classical and jazz guitar, poetry, the short story, archaeology and cultural anthropology, history of religion, prehistory, veganism, sustainability, Anglo-Saxon literature and language, systems for emergent quality control, heuristics for innovation
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