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2024-04-28 14:50:35   •   ID: 2378

Homo Ludens

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Figure 2
Figure 3
Figure 4
Figure 5
Figure 1 and 2: Unusual MSA (Fig. 1) and Neolithic (Fig. 2) lithics from the Sahara, possible objects of children play.

Figure 3: The famous Magdalenian spear thrower, called „faon aux oiseaux“ from Le Mas-d’Azil (from Dons Map), an almost identical specimen is known from Bédeilhac (Ariege).

Figure 4: Hand stencils from Sulawesi; older than 45 k.a. BP.

Figure 5: Panel of Horses from Grotte Chauvet; putatively from the Aurignacian.

In this Neoliberal world the play has become widely an issue of profit and competition - but the play is essentially much more…

"People only play where they are human in the full sense of the word, and they are only fully human where they play."(Friedrich Schiller).

„Homo Ludens“ („man as player") is an important work on cultural studies, first published in 1938 by the late Dutch Historian Johan Huizinga (Holder of the Chair of General History at Leiden University since 1915). It places a cultural-historical definition of man as „Homo ludens“ alongside the older anthropological concept of „Homo sapiens“ and the historical concept of „Homo faber“.

Huizinga had already hinted at the conviction "that human culture arises and unfolds in play - as play" in his inaugural lecture (1903) and had outlined it in more detail in lectures since 1933.

In this late work, he proposed a "the very independent and very primary character of play", which is "older than culture", and seeks to establish that ultimately "in the function of play, which is an independent quality [...], the feeling of man's embeddedness in the cosmos finds its first, highest and most sacred expression".

He emphasised that he was not concerned with viewing play in its significance as a product and component of culture, but rather with revealing the playful as a constitutive element of any cultural activity.

According to him, human play is characterised, among others by following issues:

-The game is free - in this respect it opens the mind to the realms of Freedom (sensu: Schiller)

-The game takes place within certain limits of space and time

-The game is not connected with any material interest and no profit can be made from it

- For Huizinga, play is the opposite of seriousness and is loosely associated with "a group of ideas - play, laughter, folly, joke, jest, comedy, art, etc."(Huizinga 1938).

Using cross-cultural examples from the humanities, economics and politics, Huizinga examined play in all its diverse manifestations - as it relates to language, law, war, knowledge, poetry, myth, philosophy, art and more.

Starting from Platon, Huizinga traces the contribution of "man as player" through the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the early modern period.

Although Huizinga used ethnographic literature as proxy to prehistoric times, something we would certainly consider highly problematic today, the idea about the significance of play in Paleolithic culture seems to be a fruitful hypothesis for further discussion and research.

So far, only works dealing with the role of play among children in the Paleolithic have been published (Nowell 2021). Indeed the diminutive stone tools in Figs. 1 and 2 were always discussed as children's play since their first discovery.

But play does not end in childhood, and cave paintings and portable art in particular may provide further insights into the role of play.

Far from providing systematic review, I mention here the scatological humor of the Bouquetin from Le Mas-d’Azil, shown in Figure 3, or the playful element of the multiple handstencils left behind by Homo Sapiens in parietal art since at least 45 k.a, (Figure 4) in which children were demonstrably also involved, as well as the animals on cave walls that appear to be in motion by their repetitive pattern -for example at Lascaux or Chauvet (Figure 5).

To summarize, I really believe that it would be worthwhile for prehistorians to take a closer look at Huizinga's theses....


M. Eigen and R. Winkler: Das Spiel Naturgesetze steuern den Zufall Piper, 1990

J. Huizinga Andreas Flitner (Hrsg.): Homo ludens. Vom Ursprung der Kultur im Spiel. Reinbek 2009

Hüther and Quarch: Rettet das Spiel! Hanser 2019

A. Nowell: Growing Up in the Ice Age; Oxbow Books, 2021

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