The Baining—one of the indigenous cultural groups of Papua New Guinea—have the reputation, at least among some researchers, of being the dullest culture on earth. Early in his career, in the 1920s, the famous British anthropologist Gregory Bateson spent 14 months among them, until he finally left in frustration. He called them “unstudiable,” because of their reluctance to say anything interesting about their lives and their failure to exhibit much activity beyond the mundane routines of daily work, and he later wrote that they lived “a drab and colorless existence.” Forty years later, Jeremy Pool, a graduate student in anthropology, spent more than a year living among them in the attempt to develop a doctoral dissertation. He too found almost nothing interesting to say about the Baining, and the experience caused him to leave anthropology and go into computer science (reference here). Finally, however, anthropologist Jane Fajans, now at Cornell University, figured out a way to study them.
Fajans studied the Baining in the late 1970s and again in the early 1990s. Like her predecessors, she found that they lacked the cultural structures that are the stock-in-trade of anthropology, such as myths, festivals,religious traditions, and puberty rites, and that the method of trying to learn about them through interviews produced little response. They did not tell stories, rarely gossiped, and exhibited little curiosity or enthusiasm. In Fajans’s words, “Their conversation is obsessively mundane, concerned primarily with food-getting and food-processing.” She found, however, that she could study them by following them around and observing their daily activities and interactions. From this she could discern their general cultural beliefs and values. What she found is fascinating, at least to me. By negative example, it tells us something about the value of play to human existence.
The Baining are small-scale agriculturalists, who subsist on their gardens and the few animals they raise. In their style of life and attitudes they are in many ways the opposite of hunter-gatherers, including those hunter-gatherers to whom they are closely related. Hunter-gatherers love the bush, or forest; value freedom and individual initiative; and—as I have discussed elsewhere (including here and here)—are extraordinarily playful in their daily lives and especially value play among children. Hunter-gatherer children are allowed to play all day, every day, from dawn to dusk, and in that way they acquire the subsistence skills, social skills, and personal traits and values that characterize their culture. In contrast, the Baining shun the bush, which they view as chaotic and dangerous, and they derogate play, especially that among children.
According to Fajans, the Baining eschew everything that they see as “natural” and value activities and products that come from “work,” which they view as the opposite of play. Work, to them, is effort expended to overcome or resist the natural. To behave naturally is to them tantamount to behaving as an animal. The Baining say, “We are human because we work.” The tasks that make them human, in their view, are those of turning natural products (plants, animals, and babies) into human products (crops, livestock, and civilized human beings) through effortful work (cultivation, domestication, and disciplined childrearing).
The Baining believe, quite correctly, that play is the natural activity of children, and precisely for that reason they do what they can to discourage or prevent it. They refer to children’s play as “splashing in the mud,” an activity of pigs, not appropriate for humans. They do not allow infants to crawl and explore on their own. When one tries to do so an adult picks it up and restrains it. Beyond infancy, children are encouraged or coerced to spend their days working and are often punished—sometimes by such harsh means as shoving the child’s hand into the fire—for playing. On those occasions when Fajans did get an adult to talk about his or her childhood, the narrative was typically about the challenge of embracing work and overcoming the shameful desire to play. Part of the reason the Baining are reluctant to talk about themselves, apparently, derives from their strong sense of shame about their natural drives and desires.
The Baining also derogate sexual intercourse, because it is natural, although they apparently engage in enough of it to keep their population going. They consider adoption to be the ideal form of parenting, because to raise someone else’s child is less natural than to raise one’s own. At the time that Fajans studied them, 36% of the children were adopted. In Baining tradition, if someone asks to adopt your child it is not polite to refuse their request. In many ways, the Baining are the ideal Puritans, even though they have no particular religious traditions and do not give religious reasons for their beliefs or behavior.
The one type of “play” that the Baining sanction is dancing, but only a certain type of highly stylized dancing. They choreograph elaborate dances, with masks and costumes, which they carry out at certain times of the year; but, according to Fajans, they attach no symbolic significance to these. Traditionally the dances were the province entirely of the adult men; women and children were forbidden even from observing. Now, according to Fajans, women and children do participate, at least to some degree. Perhaps these dances are acceptable to the culture because their formal structure and the intensive work that goes into preparing for them (including the creation of the elaborate costumes, which are used only once and then destroyed) remove them from primitive, “animal-like” ways of playing. Also, today the dances appear to be conducted largely to entertain visitors, which may put them into a category of work rather than play.
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, and it apparently makes the Baining the “dullest culture on earth.” In some ways, I fear, we today are trying to emulate the Baining as we increasingly deprive children of opportunities to play and explore freely and, instead, force them to spend ever more time working in school and participating in adult-directed activities outside of school. For more on that, see my last essay and many previous essays in this blog.