What does a culture look like when recreation is forbidden? The Baining, an indigenous group in Papua New Guinea, values work as the highest human ideal, and views play as domain of animals. This has led some anthropologists to deem them "unstudiable" because of their failure to do anything interesting. But a successful study of the Baining reveals some fascinating details about this unusual culture.
An article in Psychology Today notes that studying the Baining has proved challenging because their daily life is so mundane. They are small-scale farmers with no institutions outside of the family — no political or spiritual leaders. They have little in the way of traditional stories, mythology, or even gossip. They do not engage in recreational play. Their daily talk is mostly about the gathering and preparation of food. The exception, as the picture above suggests, is that they do have costumed dances, which are elaborately choreographed and which only adult men may participate in and observe. British anthropologist Gregory Bateson spent 14 months attempting to study the Baining in the 1920s before giving up entirely.
But Jane Fajans, now an associate professor of anthropology at Cornell University, studied the Baining in the 1970s and 1990s, and discovered that they have a fascinating belief system. The Baining eschew the natural, believing that work and productivity are unique to humans. In order to separate themselves from the animals, the Baining focus their lives on work. Play, being the natural state of children, is punished (sometimes going so far as to stick a child's hand in a fire) until children learn to overcome their natural urges and accept work. Similarly, sex, being natural, is frowned upon (though they do have children), and adoption is highly encouraged, to the extent that Fajans found that 36% of children were adopted. Even cooked food is preferable to raw food because it is the product of human labor. What is valued in Baining society is not the natural, not your own desires, not biological ties, but what you can turn raw materials into, including how well you can turn yourself into a productive person. From the outside, Baining society looks quite colorless, but Fajans found these strict beliefs result in a radically egalitarian, anarchistic society. She published her findings in her book They Make Themselves: Work and Play among the Baining of Papua New Guinea.
Head over to Psychology Today for more on Fajans' research, in addition to some examination about the role of play in society. One of the interesting things that the article notes is that play is especially valuable to the development of hunter-gatherer skills. This banning of play likely works precisely because the Baining are purely agrarian, relying on gardening and raising livestock instead of seeking out their food in the wild.
Photo by Taro Taylor.
All Work and No Play Make the Baining the "Dullest Culture on Earth" [Psychology Today via Kottke via Disinformation]