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2 To Scare Toddlers While Eliciting Fear, Joy and Contentment

2 To Scare Toddlers While Eliciting Fear, Joy and Contentment

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Evening Play: Acquainting Toddlers with Dangers and Fear at Yuendumu, Northern Territory

to the contrary, most anthropologists researching early childhood in Aboriginal Australia mention that, as Ro´heim puts it

in the opening quote of this chapter, ‘Central Australians,

like all other parents, indulge to a considerable extent in

frightening their children’ (1974, p. 75). As I illustrate in the

following, before I delve deeper into my own exploration

of lani-mani sessions, references to such practices of scaring children pepper the literature. They illustrate some

stimulating similarities and differences between practices

elsewhere and lani-mani sessions at Yuendumu.

The most extensive description of related practices I could

find is contained in Annette Hamilton’s (1981) work on

Anbarra child rearing in north-central Arnhem Land. There,

they are engaged in at an earlier age than at Yuendumu

(6–18 months), and Hamilton understands them to be part

of a larger range of practices, all focused on discouraging the

toddler from leaving the mother’s immediate space:

The way in which infants are prevented from practicing their

physical skills by being firmly replaced at their mother’s side has

already been described. In addition to this, threats both gestural

and verbal are used more and more frequently, especially in the

context of the child’s developing exploratory interest. The

‘return’ gesture of smiling and shaking the breast is the mildest

of these, and seems to be used on the crawling infant as soon as it

reaches a distance of 3 m from the mother, and on the walking

infant at 4.5–6 m. (Hamilton 1981, p. 55)

More specifically related to practices of scaring, she adds:

Children between 6 and 18 months of age appear passive and

dependent, prevented from using the skills they acquire so early,

presented by the adults with a fearful environment of ‘debildebils’ beyond the light’s edge of the camp, drawn back to their

mothers side by gestures and the fear of the world away from it,

carried everywhere their mothers go, straddling a hip or clinging

to curly hair, fed irregularly according to the availability of food

and their ability to cajole it, still able to have the breast any time

they can obtain it through their own actions. (Hamilton 1981,

p. 56)

While she mentions ‘beyond of the light’s edge of the camp’

and thus evening or night-time practices, she also describes

instances of scaring during the day, stating that ‘the most

frequently heard verbal warning is the word wongera, translated in English as ‘debil-debil” (Hamilton 1981, p. 55).

Ro´heim also presents a picture of adults scaring children

potentially happening at any time, for example, in this

recounting of his childhood by Urantukuru:

Urantukuru told me that he had been a very pugnacious little boy

who was always throwing stones at adults. His narrative typifies

the general native attitude toward children and gives a picture of

the Australian pedagogical methods. When he was very small,

he stayed constantly in the camp with his mother. When he grew

a little older his mother would often say to him: “You see that

willy wagtail? It is scolding you. Go and kill it!” He would then

throw a stick at it. Or she would say: “There is a red breast. It is

swearing. Go and kill it!” Since she did not want him to wander

far from the camp, whenever he did so she would shout: “Do you

see that black stump? It is an enemy, a blood avenger!” He


would run back to his mother and howl: “Mother, come and

pick me up,” and she would lift him and carry him on her

shoulder. (Ro´heim 1974, p. 74)

Ro´heim interprets the ‘use of a bogey to create fear’ as

one of two main ‘techniques of pedagogy’ employed by

Aboriginal parents (Ro´heim 1974, p. 76). While his larger

interpretive framework is psychoanalytical, he grants that

the simplest effect of these techniques is about safety: ‘The

parents were certainly being realistic in their desire for their

children to stay near the camp, because children are easily

lost in the bush. There is also the possibility that they would

be killed by strangers’ (Ro´heim 1974, p. 75).

Two contemporary Anangu women (Tjitayi and Lewis

2011) describe how they experienced such practices of scaring as an evening practice, as well as the (pedagogical) effect

it had on them:

If none of these techniques [of comforting a child into sleep]

helped and the child were still restless, the mother or grandmother would resort to scaring her. She would evoke an ogre

figure called mamu, with a mock question like this: ‘What’s

that? Did you hear this?’ Then from somewhere would come a

‘miao,’ and the growling of a bushcat. As children, we were very

scared, which exhausted us so that finally we became tired and

found sleep. (Tjitayi and Lewis 2011, p. 53)

They continue:

Inculcated from infancy onwards, the fear of child-attacking

creatures remains a powerful reality for years to come. An

older child might hear some unidentifiable noise and think,

‘Oh, this growling is what my mother told me about, just this

sound of a cat miaowing.’ Another sign of approaching danger is

a movement in the branches of a tree, together with a scratching

rustling sound that our parents had also warned us about. So

when we children stayed out playing in the dark and heard

something in a tree, we would think, ‘This is it, the rustling

noise!’ We would be so frightened that we cried. Father and

mother then came with a burning branch of spinifex grass to

light up the path and we would quickly run home. (Tjitayi and

Lewis 2011, pp. 53–54)

Conducting research with Anangu, and on the particular

monster Tjitayi and Lewis mention, the mamu, Eickelcamp

says about mamu in particular and ogres generally that they:

pay testimony to the struggles and anxieties, but also the ferocious joy, that are part and parcel of the breaking out of the

maternal bond and the quest for social relatedness that mark the

growth of the human self. Whether stuck up as a frightening

mask at the post of a child’s bed in Victorian England, identified

as the seductive call of a bird that wants to lure an Aboriginal

child away from the safety of the camp at night, or declared to

possess an infant in northern India who refuses the breast, the

hungry ogre lingers on the margins of ‘home’, ready to attack the

one who steps outside. (Eickelkamp 2004, p. 162)

She observed play sessions like scaring children with

mamu at night:

I observed Pitjantjatjara adults warning their children not to

leave camp during the night and to stay close to the fires, lest

the MAMU will bite them. (Eickelkamp 2004, p. 166)


And, albeit in a different register, during the day:

[During the day, mamu] is called upon playfully, when teasing

infants and toddlers in the manner of the peek-a-boo-game. In

the latter, the repeated mentioning of the word, stretched out and

with a deep voice, makes the toddler scream with fear and avert

her/his eyes. S/he runs off, and, at the laughter of the adult,

comes back for another encounter. Pulled closely to the face of

the adult, the child anxiously and at the same time cheerily

awaits to hear the word again. We may understand this narcissistic play with the demonic-benevolent mother to present a

reality check on the part of the child, in this way securing for

itself a new existential dimension – the ego-ideal. (Eickelkamp

2004, p. 176)

At Yuendumu, as I will elaborate, lani-mani sessions are

reserved for night-time, only.2 On the other hand, and in

contrast to the practices described above, they do not exclusively use monsters as the object that scares. O’Shannessy

says that at Lajamanu, another Warlpiri community:

There were two danger themes enacted during the children’s

play. One was about looking after young children so that they

were not taken by a mythical monster and the other was adult

violence. Warning very young children not to stray from the

populated area for fear of being taken by a mythical monster is a

common strategy for controlling the children’s behaviour.

(O’Shannessy 2011, p. 150)

While she refers to children’s play sessions during which

they imitate real life (rather than those initiated by adults),

what stands out is that in the latter, at Yuendumu, other

danger themes above and beyond monsters play a role in

lani-mani sessions.

In the following, I attend to these lani-mani sessions

through analysis geared towards understanding the meaning

of this practice and, in particular, the emotional effects it has

on the toddlers and its outcomes in terms of social learning. I

proceed by considering:





What toddlers are scared with

Who plays

When sessions are conducted

How sessions are conducted

In the ensuing conclusion, I reflect about the consequences

of this practice to Warlpiri ways of being in the world,

paying particular attention to the question of how to

approach dangers, and how to deal with fear, and how this

fits with the rapidly changing world Warlpiri people find

themselves in.


Children certainly are made frightened during the day as well, for

example, when misbehaving they are threatened with ‘that policeman who will come and lock you up’. There is, however, an important difference between daytime scaring of children (as an example

of scolding) and the playful nature of evening time lani-mani


Y. Musharbash


What Toddlers Are Scared With

Unlike most of the countless lani-mani sessions I have

witnessed over the years, and the ones described in the

literature, the one I began the chapter with involved

monkeys. Kimberley elaborated on the scope of objects of

fear that can be employed during lani-mani sessions at

Yuendumu: ‘you can use anything that is scary or poisonous,

anything that might bite you or trample you, some kids get

frightened of animals like that black monkey now [that they

saw on TV], than you can use that’.

These objects of fear can be categorised in a number of

ways. A first categorisation that offers itself is into standard

objects of fear, family-specific ones and child-specific ones.

The first amongst the most common and standard objects

used to frighten toddlers at Yuendumu, mirroring the literature, are monsters (kuuku). As Hamilton describes for

Anbarra practices:

The most frequently heard verbal warning is the word wongera,

translated in English as ‘debil-debil’. The nature of the debildebil is never described, but the combination of this word

shouted suddenly at a child and an expression of mock terror

on the adult’s face is generally sufficient to send all but the most

resourceful of children rushing back to the protection of the

mother’s lap. (Hamilton 1981, p. 55)

The Warlpiri equivalent is kuuku—the most general and

non-specific Warlpiri term for monster or ogre. As in northcentral Arnhem Land, what or who exactly a kuuku is, what

it looks like or what it will do is never made clear. A kuuku,

much like a bogeyman, is a nebulously undefined embodiment of that which causes fear.3 Other commonly used

objects of fear include cattle (bullock in Aboriginal English)

and snakes (warna). Like kuuku, I have heard these are used

in sessions across all of Yuendumu, or, put differently, all

Warlpiri toddlers are made frightened of and by these, a

point I will return to.

Next, there are objects particular to some families but not

others, for example, more specific forms of monster

(pankarlangu, a Warlpiri version of Bigfoot, rather than

kuuku), the moon; certain masks; non-Indigenous people,

especially female nurses ( jija); and the monkey from the

case study with which I opened.4 Lastly, there are objects of


The Warlpiri cosmos is populated by a great many monsters, of

varying degrees of scariness. It is significant in itself that during lanimani sessions, monsters, who have the potential to kill Warlpiri people,

like jarnpa (see Meggitt 1955; Musharbash 2014), are never employed.

Their suspected presence terrifies adults (and children), and to jokingly

engage them might actually draw them to the camp, with dire



Hamilton (1981, p. 55) reports an interesting twist on the use of

non-Indigenous people in scare play. She details: ‘Today, an even

more potent threat is used when the child is out of its immediate

camp area and in the territory of Europeans, e.g. at the canteen, the


Evening Play: Acquainting Toddlers with Dangers and Fear at Yuendumu, Northern Territory

fear identified by individual toddlers and used to scare only

them. Examples of such child-specific objects include the


• A small boy was frightened by a loud motorbike noise

during the day, following which he was frightened by

adults during lani-mani with the threat of the arrival of

motorbikes from the dark.

• Another boy is frightened of cockroaches, which he calls

marna kuuku (grass monster) and kuuku wita-pardu (little

monster), and these in turn are used in lani-mani sessions

involving him.

What the toddlers are scared with can also be categorised

according to how dangerous the objects actually are, with

one category containing what might be called ‘real’ dangers:

snakes, bullocks and so forth, on the one hand, and the moon,

masks and monkeys, amongst other things, on the other. And

then there are nurses, not dangerous, but known to stick

children with needles or, even more ambiguously, the

monsters, kuuku, which in this generic guise are more real

to the children than to the adults.

What they all have in common, and which lies at the core

of the sessions, is that they scare children. And it was the

moon, perhaps the most puzzling amongst these objects, that

helped clarify a chief purpose of these sessions most clearly.

As one mother said: ‘you make kids frightened of the moon,

especially when they are restless, then they come to our lap,

try to go to sleep. Makes them come to me, because the

moon is everywhere else’. A primary objective of these

sessions is to draw restless toddlers away from straying

into the dark and towards adult carers and the fire. The

other is to alert toddlers to potential and actual dangers in

their world; as Kimberley said, ‘in the evenings, I say

mooooo mooooooooo in that deep voice, during the day, if

Ziza hears a bullock, she runs to me’.


Who Plays

Lani-mani sessions target toddlers roughly between 1 and

3 years old. As one mother said, ‘when they are older, they

know what bullock is, and they are not scared of the moooo

sound I make at night; they still take care during the day’.

In fact, Kent, the oldest of the three toddlers from the case

study, was pointed out as just transitioning from being

scared and participating in lani-mani sessions with Ziza

hospital or in the dining room. This is wongera balanda, literally ‘debildebil white man’. When threatened with this, the child characteristically buries its face into its mother’s knees or shoulders and may not

start to timidly look around again for 5 min’.


and Jay and wandering off to join his older cousins. As his

grandmother and aunty commented, ‘he is growing out of

it now’. By the time most toddlers reach 3 years of age,

they, like Kent, begin to leave their cohorts of toddlers and

female carers and join their cousins and older siblings; put

differently, they leave adult care and begin what in

Aboriginal Australian English is called being boss for

oneself—making decisions of their own, including

choosing their own cohort, generally made up of siblings

and cousins of different ages. As their engagement in lanimani sessions ceases by the time they are 3, it is not

surprising that not a single person I interviewed could

remember being the subject of such play, in contrast to

Urantukuru’s recollections (recounted in Ro´heim 1974) or

those of Tjitayi and Lewis (2011). All that adult Warlpiri

people remembered is watching senior family members

engaging in the practice with junior family members and

joining in as they became older.

Importantly, one only conducts lani-mani sessions with

one’s own children and children one is close to: some of

one’s own grandchildren, nephews or nieces and younger

siblings. People say ‘you gotta be close to that kid, it

wouldn’t be right to scare other people’s children, other

families’ children’. ‘Close’ in the Warlpiri context is meant

emotionally; socially, in terms of kinship; and spatially as

aptly captured in the Warlpiri term ngurra-jinta. Literally, it

means ‘of one camp’, but it is used to signify one’s closest

relatives, those out of the wide range of relations (warlalja)

that one lives with, which means sharing time and space and

engaging in practices of demand sharing (Peterson 1993), as

well as emotional care and, clearly, practices that are part of

the processes of social learning.

I asked Kimberley, who engages in lani-mani with her

youngest daughter, Ziza, and she described that the group

consists of herself, her husband, her older children, her

mother-in-law, her mother, her brother and a handful of her

children’s close cousins. Two aspects are significant here,

when considering the implications of lani-mani in the context of wider Warlpiri sociality:

1. The toddlers are conditioned to seek help from close

family only; put differently, they learn that protection

lies with those one is close to as opposed to, say, adults

generally. This fits with a general emotional ecology of

trust in close family and feelings of shame and distance

towards ‘other families’ and ‘strangers’, brilliantly captured by Myers in his work on neighbouring Pintupi

people. He says ‘The concept of walytja can be said to

define the moral order of Pintupi society as ‘family,’ in

contrast to relations with strangers, which are full of fear,

hostility, and suspicion’ (Myers 1986, p. 111).

2. Even once a toddler grows out of lani-mani session age,

the child continues to look to its close senior family for


Y. Musharbash

aid when frightened, something that continues throughout

the Warlpiri life cycle. In this regard, then, lani-mani

sessions can be seen as one of a multitude of practices

habituating gerontocracy.


When Lani-mani Sessions Are


During the day, toddlers are warned about actual dangerous

creatures if they are near, for example, if a snake is spotted,

and the dangers are explained: ‘Warna-kujaku! Kapu

yarlkirni!’ (Beware of the snake! It will bite!). Even if

there is a snake on TV, it is always pointed out to toddlers

with warning words: ‘Warna! It’s really dangerous’. Lanimani sessions, on the other hand, are an evening activity. As

Kimberley and Alisha put it: ‘It’s for night-time, especially

evening or night-time, when they get restless’. Kimberley

elaborated: ‘when they get restless at lunchtime, we give

them something to play with, or turn the hose on if it’s hot.

After supper, if they get restless, if they don’t want to sleep, I

say ngula bullock! And she will come running to me’.

Speaking about Lajamanu, O’Shannessy (2011, p. 144)

says that:

Adults often lead children into play activity in order to manage

their behaviour, for instance to distract children from straying

too far from where they are expected to be, or to stop them from


Lani-mani sessions are one version of this. And importantly, Kimberley made a connection to the old hunting and

gathering days: ‘Nyurruwiyi [in the old days], kids and

teenagers don’t used to run around, they sit around fire,

then go to sleep, no running around in the dark’. While this

may be an exaggeration of just how well behaved children

were during the old days, it strikes me (along with Hamilton

1981; Ro´heim 1974; Tjitayi and Lewis 2011) that the practice of lani-mani is exactly what would have prevented

toddlers from straying from the fire of the hunting and

gathering camp and the very real dangers that were lurking

behind its circle of light. As Eickelkamp (2004, p. 166) puts

it: ‘Adults commonly use the threat of demonic attacks to

control the behaviour of children’.


How Lani-mani Sessions Are Conducted

In lani-mani sessions, people ‘use that deep voice, like

“moooooo moooooo” (drawn out and as low pitched as

possible) especially to scare [the toddler]; to make her

scared, we use really deep voice’. That deep voice makes

the toddler run to their mothers and other caregivers. That

deep voice is also, importantly, associated with play, with

joy and with the exciting shudder of pretend fear. It stands in

stark contrast to the high-pitched voice of actual danger,

where the same words may be used ‘warna, warna, warna’

[snake, snake, snake, yelled piercingly]. In the case of real

danger, the threat is screamed in such a way that the toddlers

can hear and feel the fear in their mother’s voice. The

toddler’s reaction, though, is the same; they will run to the

caregiver closest to them. As Kimberley said, ‘eventually, I

don’t need to make that sound; if she sees snake, or hears

bullock, Ziza runs to me. That is why I make her frightened,

so she runs away from that thing and to me’. Alisha added,

‘we use that deep voice, and sounds, moooooooo for bullock,

or whistling for kuuku’.



In my conclusion, I want to reflect on how the practice of

lani-mani is situated in regard to three issues:

1. Adult fears for their children

2. Children handling potential dangers

3. The changing world that Warlpiri people live in

In regard to the first, Kimberley neatly summed up her fears

for Ziza. She said:

– I worry about her walking in long grass because of snake.

– I worry about her walking without shoes: put shoes on;

it’s really hot; it might burn you.

– I worry when she climbs, she might fall.

Kapu wantimi, kapungku jankami, kapu yarlkirni—it will

fall; it will burn you; it will bite (bite as a dog does, or a

snake, but also March flies or ants)—these are the warning

cries of adults when they see their children close to danger.

And while the warning about falling may well be universal,

the warnings about being bitten and being burned are desert

specific, triggered by snakes, centipedes, spiders, dogs and

the ever-present fires. These dangers are pointed out to

toddlers during the day, they are incorporated into play

during lani-mani sessions, and they are yelled in highpitched high alert voices if actually present—these dangers

literally and aurally populate the toddlers’ world.

As a response, toddlers, as they discover their world, face

any of their caregivers, any of their ngurra-jinta (close family),

who engage in nightly lani-mani sessions with them, every

time they find something new. As Kimberley described:

Ziza is surprised to see little animals, new ones she doesn’t

know, frog or mouse. Every time she sees something new, she

looks at me if OK or dangerous, then she asks, can she touch it:

Manta? [she asks] Manta! [I say if it is safe]. Like yesterday,

when we went to Wakurlpa. Remember? She got frightened of


Evening Play: Acquainting Toddlers with Dangers and Fear at Yuendumu, Northern Territory

tadpoles [which she had never seen before]. She looked at me,

and I showed her not to be frightened. I hold that tadpole and

said “it won’t bite you, look, he’s alright”. Like her cousin

Katani, she was proud of herself yesterday, singing out

everytime she got tadpole or frog, and then we praised her.

And Alisha added ‘the same is true for Jay. Anything

new, he comes running to me, like when he had little ants

crawling up his arm; he came running’.

In a last step, I want to contrast lani-mani, the meaningful

scaring of Warlpiri children that helps them to be safe in their

physical, social and emotional world, with an anecdote about

how such practices are perceived by some non-Indigenous

service providers at Yuendumu. I only know the following

story second hand, but find it peculiarly poignant. It was told

to me by a linguist friend, who has long worked with a set of

committed Warlpiri teachers at the local school. Two of

these, she told me, had spent considerable time writing and

designing a manuscript for a Warlpiri children’s bedtime

story book. They proudly presented the manuscript to the

non-Indigenous World Vision employees, who administer

and assist the Warlpiri Early Childhood Care and Development Project, in the hope of getting it printed. The project got

refused outright and the World Vision employees compared

the stories to child torture—how could any child sleep after

hearing such scary tales—they asked.

One danger perhaps scarier even than being bitten, being

burned or falling that Warlpiri toddlers face as they grow up

is living in a world administered, policed, controlled and

defined by people who do not see, who do not hear, who do

not feel, who do not know and who do not fear what they do.

Acknowledgements My first thanks must go to Sachiko Kubota, upon

whose invitation I joined the RNMH Project. Professor Kubota looked

after me like ngurra-jinta. Heartfelt thanks also to Professor Hideaki

Terashima, who made my participation in two stimulating workshops

possible. For wonderfully fruitful discussions, I thank Akira Takada,

Lye Tuck-Po, Barry Hewlett, Samantha Disbray and Victoria Burbank.


Ute Eickelkamp provided useful feedback to a first draft of this chapter

and, even more generously, shared invaluable references with me. As

always, thank you from the bottom of my heart to the Warlpiri people of

Yuendumu for teaching me and especially to Kumunjayi-mob for

helping me understand what lani-mani sessions are all about. The

time to work on the final version of this chapter was made possible

under a fellowship by the ARC (FT130100415) for which I am

immensely grateful.


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Hunting Play Among the San Children: Imitation,

Learning, and Play


Kaoru Imamura


To understand the characteristics of learning among children of the San, hunter-gatherers in

the Kalahari, this study focuses on observing children’s imitative behavior and analyzing

the functions of imitation in obtaining skills for toolmaking and use, in communication, and

in creating new types of play. As imitation is central to social learning, the imitative

processes in which children learn skills and acquire knowledge are described and discussed.

The San children learn life skills through their play, and these are transmitted not by adults

but mainly by their playmates. Although overt instruction is very rare, older boys often help

younger ones when the latter reach an impasse in making toys by, for example, taking over

and completing the work. This type of helping leads to the transmission of skills and

exemplifies the mutual sharing of actions in San daily life.


San children  Learning  Imitation  Play  Shared intentionality



Human beings are better at “copying” one another than they

realize. By imitating those around them, people not only

learn how to use technologies that are new to them, they

also develop important communication skills. Imitation is

central to social learning and human intelligence. In this

chapter, I will elucidate the characteristic features of imitation as practiced by the San hunter-gatherers of Africa, in

order to consider how these behaviors lead to the development of complex abilities for learning, communication, and

creation, especially in hunting play among children.

K. Imamura (*)

Faculty of Contemporary Social Studies, Nagoya Gakuin University,

Nagoya, Japan

e-mail: kaoru.imamura@gmail.com


Evolutionary Background of Imitation

Tomasello (1996, 1999) has argued that copying behaviors

should be classified as either “emulation” or “imitation.” He

has found that chimpanzees do not mimic each other’s

behaviors, but instead attempt to produce the same desired

result as they have seen others achieve, without giving much

attention to the steps through which it is achieved. Thus,

chimpanzee copying behaviors are classified as emulation,

i.e., copying a behavior in order to learn the likely outcome or

goal of each action and disregarding all those actions unnecessary to that goal. This is consistent with MyowaYamakoshi et al. (2004), who found that chimpanzees focus

on the motion of the tool while it is being used and are poor at

recreating the manipulative movement itself when observing

the individual using the tool. Apparently it is very difficult for

chimpanzees to appropriately map visual images of another

individual’s body onto their own movements (MyowaYamakoshi and Tominaga 2009). In fact, emulation is a

more efficient process for acquiring new skills/behaviors

than is imitation, which involves copying a behavior despite

# Springer Japan 2016

H. Terashima, B.S. Hewlett (eds.), Social Learning and Innovation in Contemporary Hunter-Gatherers,

Replacement of Neanderthals by Modern Humans Series, DOI 10.1007/978-4-431-55997-9_15



not understanding its meaning, and humans appear to become

increasingly reliant on emulation as they mature.

In contrast, imitation involves “precisely copying another

individual’s behavior” (Tomasello 1999). MyowaYamakoshi and Tominaga (2009) find that humans pay

attention not only to the information about an object but

also to the physical movements of the individual

manipulating the object. They also argue that since humans

share sensory bodily experiences with others, they are able

to understand the mental states of others by incorporating the

bodily movements of others into their own bodily

experiences. Similarly, Downey (2010) has studied embodied knowledge through a close examination of movement

education, especially its neurological, psychological, and

interactional dynamics in the Afro-Brazilian art capoeira.

He emphasizes the importance of bodily movements and

shared sensory experiences for embodied social learning

and bodily enculturation. This ability to intuit and understand the interactions, goals, beliefs, and thoughts of others

is known as “theory of mind” (Premack and Woodruff

1978), a cognitive capacity in humans argued to have been

tailored by evolution in the context of increasingly complex

and difficult to navigate social environments, where being

able to “read others’ minds” became particularly advantageous (Byrne and Whiten 1988).

15.2.1 Two Aspects of Imitation

There are two aspects to the function of imitation. The first

involves the methods and techniques needed to obtain new

skills for making and using tools. Among Central Kalahari

San, this type of imitation is found in the transmission of

techniques from older children to younger children. This

represents a form of horizontal transmission. When children

learn how to use a knife and how to make a bow and arrow, a

spear, or a snare, they observe older boys who are making

these things and they copy the elders’ actions. But it is not

always necessary for the children and elders to be together in

the same place. Older boys often help younger ones when they

reach an impasse in using tools by taking over and completing

the work. Thereafter younger children copy what they have

observed and hone their skills away from the older boys.

The second functional aspect of imitation is communication with others. As mentioned above, humans can get a

deeper understanding of other people’s intentions and

perceptions by imitating their behavior. This may even

occur between humans and nonhumans. For example, the

San can predict the behavior of game animals by focusing on

and tracking an animal’s motion by their footprints or other

traces and also imitating an animal’s behavior (Imamura and

Akiyama 2016). Within the context of teaching and learning,

learners may communicate their level of understanding by

imitating their teacher’s actions/behaviors.

K. Imamura

These two aspects of imitation are used to obtain new

skills and communicate with others. However, it is not easy

to delineate the sharp boundaries between them. Many traditional Japanese arts attach great importance to becoming

adept at “copying” a skill that will help the novice along

their path to learning an art and finally achieving a kind of

communication. This path is not one way, for skill acquisition, communication, and creation occur simultaneously and


15.2.2 Shared Intentionality and Imitation

Tomasello (1999) has argued that theory of mind, the ability

of individual organisms to recognize conspecifics and understand that beings like themselves have intentional and mental lives like their own, is the psychological foundation for

social all that is cultural. A highly developed theory of mind

in humans in turn allows for shared intentionality, the ability

to collaborate with others in pursuit of a common goal

(Tomasello and Carpenter 2007), which is essential to

much of social learning as it occurs in humans. Tomasello

et al. (1993) distinguished social learning in humans from

that found in other species, identifying three basic types:

imitative learning, instructed learning, and collaborative


Among the San, social learning occurs primarily through

imitation and collaboration, often in the course of play

among peers. Direct instruction is very rare, regardless of

age differential. Various dimensions of imitation observed

among San children are discussed below.


The Central Kalahari San

The San belong to the Khoisan linguistic family, which is

distributed in the southern part of Africa and consists of

more than ten different linguistic groups. The Khoi or Khoikhoi are traditionally pastoral people and the San are huntergatherers. The group composition among the San in the

Kalahari Desert is extremely fluid (the Central Kalahari

San by Tanaka 1969, 1976, 1980; the !Kung San by Lee

1968, 1979). The membership of residential groups, which

includes relatives and friends, often changes during the

frequent shift of camp sites because of their food-gathering

activities. The residential group has neither territory nor

fixed membership, and its size varied from one family to

some 20 families with dozens of people. Lee (1968) and

Tanaka (1969) simply called these residential groups

“camps” instead of “bands,” the usual name for the huntergatherer residential groups.

The San of Botswana’s Central Kalahari include the |Gui

and ||Gana groups, who intermarry and speak distinct but

mutually intelligible dialects of the same language. |Gui and


Hunting Play Among the San Children: Imitation, Learning, and Play

||Gana are dialectal groups. Up until the 1970s, the |Gui and ||

Gana maintained a self-sufficient livelihood based on hunting and gathering. In general, men hunted and women gathered, though Imamura (1997) found these roles were not

fixed; men sometimes collected wild vegetables and

women hunted small animals with digging sticks.

Camps, which functioned as foraging units, are temporary residences and frequently moved to new sites,

remaining in one place for anywhere from a few days to a

few months. Camp composition was relatively unstable,

undergoing frequent fusion and fission as camps moved

and changed to adapt to local availability of natural

resources. A single camp consisted of between just one and

around ten nuclear families. Food, labor, and information

were shared within families.

In recent times the |Gui and ||Gana started to settle down

in villages situated around wells dug with diesel-powered

machines. Such wells were installed in 1979 by the

Botswana government (Tanaka 1987, 2014). One such village, Xade, was built in 1979, and now many San people

have migrated to New Xade, having moved there in 1997 for

political reasons. Along with some Kalahadi (Bantu

agropastoralists), San people settled in this village which

now has a population of around a thousand people and

contains schools with dormitories, hospitals, police stations,

and co-op grocery stores.

The San have lived in such settlements for the past

30 years. Some earn cash as day workers, and many of

them currently live on government rations and limited hunting and gathering (Tanaka 1987; Osaki 1984). Children’s

daily activities and play behavior have also changed and

become influenced by schooling (Akiyama 2001).

Since 1988, I have conducted research in Xade and New

Xade. Members of the San community with whom I was

especially close include dozens of families – about 100 people – belonging to both |Gui and ||Gana groups. The methods

used in this study were participant observation and

interviews focused on play and learning.


Practice of Imitation

San adults and children are active mimickers. In the context

of entertainment, when they are in camp, they (1) impersonate others to describe their characters, (2) reenact their own

experiences, and (3) mimic animals’ behaviors and calls.

With regard to impersonating others, they imitate distinctive

mannerisms, including ways of walking, speaking, and acting – particularly those of bossy Kalahadi and public

officials or their friends – in order to tease, laugh at, or

criticize them as a group. Adults as well as children enthusiastically perform imitations of animals as entertainment,

thereby sharpening their skills as trackers and hunters and


transmitting experiential knowledge of the environment and

wildlife to others in the group. Mimicking in detail the

movements and calls of animals and birds allows children

to become familiar with them. The San people perform

imitations both in their camps and in the bush while hunting

and gathering food.

When they find animal footprints and feces in the bush,

they imitate the animal’s movements of making the

footprints and defecating. They guess the animal’s age and

sex from the size of its footprints and describe where it must

have come from, where it likely went, and what it did there.

They carefully read footprints around the animal traps they

had set (Takada 2008). They walk along trails of footprints

in order to imagine the animal’s activities and intuit its state

of mind. When following an animal that was hurt and took a

rest, they are better able to identify with the animal when

tracking its footprints.


The San Children’s Imitations

This section focuses on imitations performed by children.

Children did imitations to impart or obtain skills and to play.

15.5.1 Skill Transmission

Beginning around the age of 5, San children learn how to use

various tools, including knives to sever animal meat from

bones, planes to pare fat tissue from the skin, axes to chop

firewood, hammers to strike iron bars to create arrowheads,

and small gavels to extract fibers from plants used for

making ropes. Adults, however, do not teach their children

how to use these tools directly. Here, I will describe how

children acquire knife skills, in order to illustrate how they

become competent users of these tools.

If children are interested in knives, they are allowed to

use them freely. Though knives are intended for adult use,

San boys usually begin to use knives when they are about

5 years of age, while they receive their own knife at about

10 (Akiyama 2004). Children use knives in a wide variety of

activities: shaving wood or peeling potatoes; making toys,

bows and arrows, and slingshots; and playing games such as

spinning tops and stick flicking (throwing tree branches

down on the ground to flick them forward). Since the introduction of formal schooling, they have also begun to make

model cars and airplanes. Through these activities boys

learned to use a knife and tie strings and learn about the

properties of different materials, such as plant, metal, rubber,

and plastic (Akiyama 2004).

Boys often form their own “playgroups” and play away

from the adults. Although these groups consist of boys between

ages 5 and 12 – “middle childhood” as defined by Hewlett


(2014) – only boys age 8 or older go deep into the bush, when

necessary, to play at trapping, for example. The foremost mode

of transmission for skills related to making and using tools is

thus horizontal (peer to peer) (cf. Cavalli-Sforza 1986).

When an older boy is using a knife to making something,

the younger boys will sit around him and watch his handiwork closely. Indeed, it is rare for adults to teach boys

actively. In most cases, boys master skills through observing

their older playmates, copying them, trying out what they

have seen for themselves, and then observing the older boys

again. They also learn or hone some of their skills on their

own through a process of trial and error. Thus, the process of

acquiring skills in tool use, especially during childhood,

involves younger boys’ observation and mimicry of older

boys in their group of playmates as well as some degree of

trial and error, with a minimum of verbal instruction

(Imamura and Akiyama 2016).

Although overt instruction is rare, I observed some

instructive behavior among the boys. When any of the younger boys reached an impasse in making hunting tools or toys,

an older boy in the playgroup took over and completed it for

him. The older boy neither explains how to do it nor lets the

younger one make it. The older boy simply continues to do

the younger’s craft work for him, while the younger boy only

observes the action of making. These types of activities –

which involve helping others complete woodworking

projects, handiwork, and artwork – are commonly observed

in San daily life. They routinely continue with others’ work

until it is completed without being asked.

15.5.2 Fuzzy Distinctions Between “Practical”

Play and “Pretend or Mimic” Play

I have compared San children’s play to Japanese children’s

play (Imamura 2011) and concluded that San children’s play

was characterized by:

1. Little use of play equipment

2. No “tag” or “hide-and-seek,” both of which are popular

games in Japan

3. No competitive games, such as foot races

4. Some forms of play and games similar to adult behaviors

With regard to this last form of play, which imitates a

behavior with a practical application, San children enjoy

“pretend” and “practical” forms of play, through which

they learn life skills. A typical type of pretend play is, for

example, “playing house,” which both boys and girls of

around 3 years old engaged in, as do Japanese children.

The girls in particular make small dolls, less than

10 centimeters tall, and then use pieces of leftover cloth

K. Imamura

and yarn to hold the dolls and carry them on their backs.

They also make “huts” from slender twigs and grass for the

dolls to sit in.

When they are 4 or 5 years old, the girls begin playing

with slightly older children. These groups consist of children

ranging from 4 or 5 years of age to 12 or 13 years. At these

ages, children tend to play with others of the same sex. Girls

play with girls, and boys play only with boys.

San boys usually play at hunting, while girls play at

gathering. This hunting play was a practical activity through

which they learn how to catch real animals for food. The

boys use small bows and arrows and slingshots to kill birds,

lizards, and other small animals. However, it is not a hunting

exercise: they do not precisely copy the hunting behaviors of

the adults. The children only used small “toy” bows and

arrows and slingshots and believed their hunting activity

was just play. The girls younger than 10 years of age did

not bring bags for gathering food and, instead, used their

clothing to collect them (at about 12 years of age, they

followed adults in foraging). They copied adults by putting

pickings in such “collection bags” and by carrying them on

their heads.

However, San girls and boys also sometimes “copy daily

life” together. This type of play was called “taa?o”

(Imamura 2010). When the San people were living traditional lives, San children built their own small huts away

from camp, where they imitated adult behaviors, which

included hunting and foraging for food, cooking, sharing

food, singing songs, expressing love between an adult man

and woman (by repeating overheard words of love or jealousy), and marriage (which might include sexual activities).

San adults ignored their children’s “daily life imitations”

but seemed to have considered it as improper (Imamura


More recently, San children often cook and eat food

under trees at a distance some dozen meters away from the

adults. This cooking activity has a slightly different meaning

from practical work or exercise, and they only do it as

“play.” The reason for this distinction is that they do such

cooking not in their huts but at a distance from them. They

do not use real pots and plates, but rather waste cans and

leaves. In other words, using such “fake” equipment

indicates that their cooking activities involve elements of

imagination and as such are more genuine play rather than

work. They do not bring firewood from their real homes, but

find tree branches and make a fire by themselves. In addition

to the corn powder and flour they brought from their home,

they cook small animals they hunt in the bush, including

birds, lizards, and wild squirrels, or nuts and wild herbs they

collect. When they mix dough and made fried bread, each

piece was quite small, an indication that the children consider the activity as play rather than as true work.


Hunting Play Among the San Children: Imitation, Learning, and Play

15.5.3 Creative Performance of a “Hunting


In February of 2012, I revisited the San’s village after an

absence of 14 years and found for the first time that the boys

were playing a hunting game performance or a drama which

was different from the traditional hunting plays, which

contained hunting actual small animals. In the new type of

hunting game, the boys performed “play acting” based on an

innovated fictional world by copying horseback hunting by


It has been pointed out that when children engage in

“pretend” play, they usually share in the same narrative (Garvey 1977). A hunting play represents a “story” consisting of

three parts: (1) making toy spears and horses from tree

branches, (2) all participants pretending to be hunters while

taking the spears and riding their horses at full speed, and

(3) stopping after riding long enough to act out the actual

“kill.” Once they have stopped riding, the boys group themselves into hunters and animals, after which the “hunters”

pretend to pierce the “animals” with spears. When being

speared, the boys acting as animals fall down and are “sectioned” by the hunters. When I observed this play, the group

consisted of five boys: three 6- or 7-year-olds and two 11- or

12-year-olds. In the following description, the older and younger boys are regarded as juniors and seniors, respectively.

Part one involved crafting props for the play, including toy

horses and spears. The boys bent a branch in two and removed

excess branches and twigs with a knife to make the body and

tail of a horse. They bent back a branch on what was the tip of

the body to form a parallelogram for a “horse’s face” and

inserted two leaves to make the “horse’s ears” (Fig. 15.1).

Then, they stripped the bark off a tree with a knife to make a

string and hung it over the horse’s neck as a rein. If a junior

became stuck at a certain step in the process of making a horse,

a senior in the playgroup took over and completed it for him.


For spears, the boys cut a branch to about 60 cm long and

wrapped the end which was to be its “spearhead” with layers

of the bark. Wrapping the end with a bark was intended to

prevent others from being injured when it “pierced” them.

This spear resembles the stick used in the traditional “stickthrowing game.” Until the 1970s, young San men around

20 years old would throw sticks, their tips bound with leather

string, onto an artificial sand mound where they would be

caught upright. The young men did not stand side by side,

which would have allowed them to compete with each other

regarding the distance they could throw their sticks. Rather,

while the audience admired their efforts, they stood one

behind the other and threw their sticks one by one, to show

off their throwing style and its effect on the bouncing sticks.

There is little competitive element in San children’s play

(Imamura 2011), neither is there among !Kung San children

(Draper 1976). Around 1990, I watched as San boys stood

one behind the other and threw their sticks one by one, while

playing this game. It seems the old stick-throwing game

played by older males persists in altered form as part of

this children’s game.

After completing their horses and spears as described

above, they then rode the horses and played for a while

(Figs. 15.2 and 15.3). Some evidence suggests that San

children have gone on such “horsy rides” since early times.

A photo taken by Jiro Tanaka in the 1960s shows some San

boys riding branches for fun. During my stay in the study

region in 2012, I saw many toddling babies here and there

riding sticks as “horsy ride” play.

Fig. 15.2 Holding their horses and spears

Fig. 15.1 Making horse’s face with a twig and leaves

In this “horsy ride” play, boys 5 or 6 years of age or more

acted very realistically, as both horses and riders. They

manipulated their horses to make it seem as though they

were rearing up their hind legs, neighing, and shaking themselves just as real horses do. However, immediately


K. Imamura

Fig. 15.4 Pretending to dissect an animal

Fig. 15.3 Riding on the horse

afterward they would whip their horse in imitation of riders.

Toddlers, as well as boys, pretended to get off their horses

and carefully hitch them to posts. The boys had created a

new play performance by combining the elements of old

games: the stick-throwing game and “horsy ride” play.

In part two of the hunting play, all the participants rode

their horses at full speed. They were not grouped into hunters

and animals for “chasing,” but were all dedicated to riding as

hunters. They didn’t compete with regard to speed, but just

rode until they felt tired. I observed three juniors stop riding

when they could no longer keep up with their seniors, who

also stopped in response.

In part three, after they had stopped riding, the seniors

and juniors acted as hunters and animals, respectively, and

the “hunters,” still riding their toy horses, pursued the

“animals,” who were then on foot. The hunters did not

throw their spears, but just touched the juniors with them,

as they stood very close together. Once they had been

“pierced,” the junior boys acting as animals fell facedown.

The seniors got off their “horses” and calmly hitched them to

nearby trees. Next, they used their spears as knives to “section” the animals.

The hunters flipped the “animals” onto their backs and

pretended to cut open the midlines of their abdomens as if

with knives, inserted their fists into the imaginary openings,

and finally “skinned” them. Then, the seniors pretended to

notch the juniors’ elbows and knees and cut their tendons

with the “knives” to separate their joints, as adult hunters

do. This was the final part of the “hunting play” performance. While pretending to section animals, the seniors

traced the juniors’ bodies with branches, tickling the juniors

and making them laugh continuously (Fig. 15.4). The

entirety of the “hunting play” lasted about an hour.

Their hunting play is a story and the boys, as actors,

performed a drama. Copying adults’ daily lives provided

an opportunity for San children to create another world by

mimicking adult models.



15.6.1 Imitation and Creativity

Why did the boys create a new “drama”? What is the background to the creation of such fictional plays, as performed

by San children today?

Firstly, the San people have moved from Xade to New

Xade, where there are fewer animals and plants. It appears

these poor conditions have prevented the San children from

hunting small wild animals, and children who would have

spent time on real hunting and food collection have begun to

play in a fictional world. Secondly, it may be pointed out that

adult hunting activities have been diminished. Children’s

hunting play might be regarded as containing a collective

memory of traditional hunting activities. Such forms of play

may store and revive traditional San activities and

memories. Finally, formal education may have some influence on the type and content games that are played. Local

schools offer drama classes (Imamura and Lekoko 2014) in

which students create stories and act in dramas.

In any event, it is apparent that San children have created

a new type of play, consistent with their perceptions and

interpretations of the modern age. Even though regarded as

an artificial and poor play distanced from nature, it would be

an artistic activity supported by their rich imaginations.

In San society, adults as well as children enthusiastically

performed hunting and other imitations as entertainment and

as activities important in preparing them for their occupation

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