The (Violent) Origin of Sports
The (Violent) Origin of Sports
Posted Dec 29, 2008
All human activities can be traced back to basic instincts...? This is an ambitious claim. Many aspects of everyday life must first be explained to justify such a claim, including our attraction to sports.
It is occasionally easy to see a link between an activity and a basic instinct. However, when we are tempted to say that something is "for fun," it means that we are missing a deeper explanation. Fun, along with other feelings, serve basic instincts. The question is how.
My earlier articles cover some initial implications of this claim. It is easy to associate eating with survival. Though we sometimes eat "for fun," most of us intuitively sense our subconscious minds using pleasure and pain to get us to eat. For sex, the link is slightly less intuitive. We often have sex just for fun, but occasionally we take a philosophical step back and appreciate that the second basic instinct--reproduction--is behind our desire. But what of sports? What basic instinct could they possibly serve?
To help answer this question, we must look into our sordid past. One of the most shocking chapters in the human story is how widespread mass murder or genocide was, even prior to modern warfare. It happened regularly and globally. In the book War Before Civilization, Professor Lawrence Keeley shattered the false belief that primitive life was peaceful compared with today. Native American tribes--before the time of the European colonies--performed genocide. Crow Creek in South Dakota was the site of a brutal killing in the early 1300s. Archaeologists found a mass grave containing the remains of five hundred men, women, and children who had been slaughtered and scalped. This occurred a century and a half before Columbus arrived. Based on the small number of young female bodies found in the grave, scientists believe that many of the women were taken to become slaves and forced mates.
The first evidence Keeley discovered of war in Europe dated back to 5000 BCE in Belgium. He excavated villages that were surrounded by deep, nine-foot ditches designed to protect the ancient villagers. Fences--called palisades--made of sharpened wooden stakes lined the back of the ditches. Following Keeley's first discovery, new interest was sparked in European archaeology. By 1987, fifty enclosed sites had been discovered in Germany alone. In Stuttgart, an ancient mass grave was found that contained the bones of thirty-four men, women, and children killed by axe-blows.
This may, at first, appear to have no bearing on sports, but let's start by considering how often such acts occurred. Most of the battles over the past five thousand years have been forgotten--as have those over the past five million. Usually, no evidence remains or can be found, but remote tribes in South America and New Guinea provide valuable clues into our ancient past. These tribes--even today--lead primitive lifestyles that serve as windows into prehistoric times. How do humans live without the influence of modern society? Almost all tribal societies take part in a kind of warfare called raiding. Professor Andy Thomson at the University of Virginia describes this as "male-bonded coalition violence with deadly force against innocents." It is mainly performed by men. As Thomson says, "The women are off the hook on this one!"
The chance of being killed at the hands of a man in the Jivaro tribe of South America is sixty percent. This means that, at the moment you are born, there is a good chance you will not die of hunger, disease, heart attack, stroke, diabetes, an accident, snake bite, or carnivore attack. The chance of being killed by another human during a raid is greater than all other factors combined, despite the natural dangers of jungle life. For the Yanomamo tribe, the rate is a little lower--at under forty percent. This rate is similar to the mass murder rate of the Mae Enga tribe in New Guinea. The Gebusi tribe in the lowland area of New Guinea is far less violent. In fact, it is one of the least violent tribes that was studied, but the killing rate is still fifteen percent. What about modern man during the twentieth century? Surely the impact of two world wars has created a high rate of human-caused death in Europe? Not quite. Despite modern warfare with the latest bombs resulting in a hundred million deaths at the hands of man, the rate only comes to around one percent. If the rate was at tribal levels, two billion people would have been slaughtered in Europe during the last century, instead of a hundred million. In other words, the death rate would have been twenty times greater. Imagine forty world wars instead of two! Imagine a constant world war.
What does all this prove with regard to sports? All will soon be revealed, but the story first becomes even more sordid, as if that were possible...
Scientists believe that raiding is even older than our species. Jane Goodall--the first person to study the social activities of apes--was also the first person to witness raid warfare in nature. War is one of the saddest parts of the human story, but it is not strictly human. It is from nature. It existed long ago in its darkest form--the form of genocide. Groups of male chimps in Africa gather together before launching a sneak attack on a neighboring group. Males, females, and younglings are brutally murdered by the chimp raiders. No mercy is shown. In the book Demonic Males, Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson wrote, "Scientists have so far witnessed the extinction of two entire ape communities." That means ape genocide. They go on to note, "Chimpanzee-like violence preceded and paved the way for human war, making humans the dazed survivors of a continuous, five-million-year habit of lethal aggression."
The parallel with humans is absolute, right down to the female prisoners. Humans are not the only creatures that take young women as forced mates. In other words, raiding not only serves survival by killing others before they get a chance to kill you, it also serves reproduction through forced mating. It is an awful legacy. Not all species kill each other because not all species compete with each other. As our ancient ape ancestors became successful, they found themselves competing for space and food. A similar situation occurred in the cat kingdom. Many species of cat, including tigers and the average, fluffy house cat, will slaughter kittens or cubs from foreign litters. Mice are similar. They became their own opponents. Natural selection has always been about competition, and occasionally that competition is within a species.
Five million years of raiding can shed light on many modern human activities and desires. This finally brings us to the subject of sports. Have you ever wondered why men in particular are fond of sports, including spectator sports? Very little is learned while watching a baseball game, other than--trivially--who wins and loses. That information could easily be caught on the news, later. Why are the "winning games" important to our animal brains? Why do they draw our attention? Why are they "fun"? The answer is possibly that raiding is nature's original team sport. The human desire to play or watch sports has arisen from the ancient violence.
Women are not excluded from this reasoning, since women are very much stakeholders during raid warfare if not always participating directly, but the percentages differ. The percentage of time primal women or female apes spend killing during times of raid warfare is lower than their male counterparts. Likewise, as you would expect, women on average spend less time playing or watching sports than men. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 30% more men participate in sports on an average weekend than do women, and for a longer duration--2 hours for men versus 1.4 hours for women.
Watching apes charge through the jungle, taking swipes at their opponents, is like watching an American football play in action. In fact, the word "blitz" is used to describe a play in American football where a sudden all-out attack is launched on the opponent. It echoes the word "blitzkrieg" that described the lightning raids of the Germans during World War II, conquering Czechoslovakia, Holland, and France.
Over the last five million years, part of our brain evolved a talent for raiding. A desire came with that talent. Even chimps play physical group games as they unknowingly prepare for future battles. Today, you experience that desire as a need to compete, play sports, or tackle war games on your X-Box. Sports and action games absorbed that primal human trait originally geared towards survival and reproduction. An occasional hour of Call of Duty or Quake is a harmless echo of a recent violent past. Strategy games are similar. They exercise a part of the brain that evolved during countless raids.
Today, soccer hooliganism is a clear remnant of the violent origin of sports. Other examples include little league parents becoming aggressive and occasionally violent; hockey players resorting to fist fights; biting our nails as we hope or pray for our favorite team to win; and intense sadness or momentary depression if they lose. The first of these even has its own term: Little League Parent Syndrome or LLPS. When our feelings get the better of us, it is easy to say to ourselves, "It's just a game," but perhaps a little more difficult to live by those words.
Knowing the origin of competition and sports may help us maintain more balance amid the ever-growing array of modern trappings that cater to our evolved desires, such as video games and monster truck shows. It may help us select sports and other activities that improve our health through exercise, rather than pursuing the "coach-potato" activities of purely spectator sports. The knowledge may help us avoid quiz shows we might otherwise watch just to see who wins, and instead pursue educational activities, like immersing ourselves in a good book. After five million years, it is not surprising that many human urges are remnants of primate and early human warfare. Today, however, we can choose reading instead of raiding.
* Includes excerpts from The Third Basic Instinct.