The gathering of different polities to compete on the playing field may date back to a time when all humans lived as hunter-gatherers. Many foraging peoples documented in the last few centuries regularly challenged neighboring groups to athletic competitions, which suggests that such contests might have been part of ancient human life. Many of these contests were team games that involved a high degree of physical contact, such as lacrosse and shinney. Most of these games were played exclusively by males, a trend that holds for similar sports in modern industrialized societies as well. Despite the growth in female high school, collegiate, and professional sports in recent years, there is a pronounced sex difference in team sports participation across industrialized nations . The comparative lack of support for female team sports was satirized in the pointedly named “Cock Magic” episode of Southpark, and although the Women’s World Cup final drew unprecedented tv ratings last summer, the trend persists: women’s professional team sports do not regularly draw the audiences that the FIFA World Cup, Stanley Cup, Rugby World Cup, NBA Finals, and Super Bowl do. This pervasive phenomenon begs the question of why, cross-culturally, humans are so interested in competitive male team play.
The answer lies in the nature of play itself. Play behavior is widely regarded as an adaptation, the function of which is to develop or rehearse skills that are critical to survival or reproduction later in life . Play is proactive: it provides animals with learning opportunities by simulating key features of the actual experience. For example, chase play—games like tag and hide-and-seek–may build the stamina, speed, and agility that, in ancestral human environments, was needed to outrun and outmaneuver predators . Play provides an alternative to learning things the hard way: it is much safer to practice predator evasion with a playmate than with an actual predator. And, importantly, play provides a means of self-assessment by enabling individuals to track their progress toward mastery of a given skill relative to past performances and relative to other individuals.
On this view, team sports may develop skills that were critical to survival under the hunting-and-gathering conditions in which humans evolved. Contact sports make similar demands on the body that hunting and fighting do , such as running, throwing projectiles, dodging, and grappling. The question is, if team play is an adaptation, which of these tasks drove its evolution?
Hunting is a seemingly obvious candidate because it involves the use of clubs and/or projectiles, which are also widely used in team sports. However, forager males typically hunt alone or in groups of two or three, and typically stalk and kill one animal at a time. Although team (“cooperative”) hunting does occur, it usually takes the form of game drives, whereby animals are driven into an enclosed area (often by women and older children), and then picked off one by one. Thus, neither solitary hunting nor game drives take the form of one team competing against another: hunting usually involves one or two men pitted against a single animal. That animal may defend itself, but it fights alone. Moreover, animals don’t defend themselves in the same way that humans do. Animals tend to butt, gore, or kick, which primarily involves the head and legs. In contrast, team sports (with the exception of soccer) tend to involve the use of the arms and hands to manipulate projectiles. Because animals don’t fight with spears, clubs, or knives, hunting does not require the dodging of projectiles or club blows. Yet dodging and its close cousin interception are prominent features of team contact sports. The same goes for grappling: blocking, body checking, and tackling are common moves in team sports, but are not used in hunting.
In short, there are very few skills involved in forager hunting practices that would lead us to expect humans to play in teams. For most of our evolutionary history as hunter-gatherers, the main physical skills involved in hunting were stalking and the forceful and accurate throwing of projectiles, neither of which requires the coordinated action that is characteristic of team sports. On the contrary, if there were a play behavior dedicated to developing hunting skill, we would expect it to take the form of target practice. Tellingly, this is a popular recreational activity among boys and young men in forager societies (e.g.,  ).
Another possibility is that team sports develop skills related to interpersonal aggression, which involves many of the same motor patterns, such as striking, throwing, and grappling. However, interpersonal aggression is dyadic, and dyadic fighting is not a team activity. Dyadic aggression pits one person against another, and thus does not require coordinated action. Team wrestling is a case in point: a wrestler does not submit his opponent with the help of his team members; participants compete in pairs, representing their team but fighting individually. In contrast, sports like rugby, handball, and hockey require the coordinated efforts of several individuals in order to score points and prevent the opposing team from doing the same. Indeed, coordinated action is the hallmark of team contact sports—it is the main thing that distinguishes them from other combat-related sports such as the javelin throw, archery, and jujitsu.
This leaves us with the hypothesis that team sports develop skills related to warfare. In ancient human environments, warfare took the form of lethal raiding, which is characterized by the use of stealth incursions into enemy territory, brief surprise attack, and hasty retreat to avoid being drawn into battle . Interestingly, team contact sports are organized around territorial invasion and defense: the goal in most team sports is to penetrate the opposing team’s territory while defending one’s own territory against incursion. Successful invasion is achieved symbolically, by advancing a projectile to a target location.
Even more striking, however, is the parallel between the motor patterns used in lethal raiding and those used in team sports, which is precisely what we would expect if team play developed skills critical to lethal raiding . For example, among the Murngin of Australia, the “spear, the spear-thrower and the club as well as the stone knife, are used. . . . the stone axe . . . also serves as a weapon. No shield is found here. The Murngin depend on the spear-thrower to ward off spears and also on their well-developed agility to avoid being hit” . Here we see references to throwing (spear, spear-thrower), striking (club, axe), parrying (warding off spears), and dodging (avoiding being hit), all of which are common features of team contact sports. Grappling also frequently comes into play. For example, among the Ona of Patagonia, “the men shoot first from ambush, then in the open, and finally close empty-handed, the object being to break the opponent’s back or neck by wrestling” . Blocking, tackling, take-downs, and body checking—all of which are subsumed under the category of grappling–are also a prominent feature of team contact sports. And finally, lethal raiding involves a considerable amount of running, both in retreat and pursuit, as seen among the Iñupiaq of Alaska: “Unless the battle had gone on for a very long time, they were usually hotly pursued by the victors” . (Burch 2005:108). Tellingly, the most popular team sports, both in hunter-gatherer and modern societies, require almost constant running. For example, in the Sioux version of shinney (double-ball), goals were placed “from three hundred yards to one mile apart, as . . . agreed upon between the players” . Hunting, in contrast, rarely demands sustained running; when hunting with short-range projectiles such as spears, the standard method is to approach animals slowly and stealthily to get within shooting range, not to run them down.
Ethnographic descriptions of lethal raiding also include occasional references to men catching arrows in mid-flight. For example, Bogoras describes how a Chukchi warrior “avoids the arrows by springing to one side, or parries them all with the butt-end of his spear, or simply catches them between the fingers” . Although this feat is humanly possible, it seems unlikely that lethal raiding involved a lot of catching, which begs the question of why catching is so prominent in team sports. One possibility is that it is a by-product of the high frequency of throwing, which often involves passing and thus necessitates catching, while also creating opportunities for interception. Another possibility is that catching provides practice for dodging: both tasks require calculating the trajectory of a projectile and then positioning the body to intercept or avoid it. Soccer makes similar demands on other parts of the body: the quick maneuvers of the head, knees, and feet used to propel or block the ball may develop the agility and alacrity required to dodge blows and projectiles in battle.
Another skill critical to lethal raiding is the ability to coordinate action. Hunter-gatherers do not raid in a random fashion. They scout the enemy position and devise a plan of attack. Labor is divided and personnel are deployed accordingly. Among the Iñupiat, for example, it was common for “one or two relatively short and particularly agile young men from each side to advance ahead of the line, taunt the members of the enemy force, and try to lure them into shooting prematurely” . Successful raiding depends on everyone doing their part and doing it at the right time. Of course, the behavior of the enemy force is always somewhat unpredictable, which means that plans must often be revised on the spot to cope with unanticipated events. To do this effectively, individuals must regularly monitor the position, behavior, and status (e.g., disarmed, wounded, killed) of their own group members vis-à-vis the position, behavior, and status of enemy group members, all while engaged in combat. This is highly demanding work, both physically and cognitively, and would seemingly require practice beforehand if one’s goal were to survive.
Team contact sports provide this practice by simulating many key features of lethal raiding. Like warfare, these games involve the use of coordinated action and physical force to attain, and prevent an opposing coalition from attaining, a predetermined physical objective. And, as with raiding, each coalition makes incursions into the other group’s territory and defends its own territory against invasion. Team contact sports also rehearse many of the motor patterns used in lethal raiding: this is done through the use of a proxy for the human head/body (e.g., ball, puck, shuttlecock) that is struck, hurled, butted, or kicked in order to “win.” The execution of maneuvers in combat is simulated through the use of plays, and the chaos of the battlefield is simulated through the near-constant movement of personnel about the playing field. Several anthropologists have noted that team sports appear to have served as training for warfare. Among the Jicarilla, for example, “Many of the pastimes for boys are in reality mock battles and are a definite part of the training and hardening process through which the youths are passing. Often the boys themselves organize these games, but frequently the adults suggest or arrange them” . The parallel between team sport and combat is readily visible in the Blackfoot “clay war game”:
They went to a river bank where there was plenty of soft, wet clay. Each boy cut a willow stick about six feet long. They divided into two groups of equal numbers. Each group made a supply of clay balls about two inches in diameter. Then the opposing groups faced each other about seventy-five yards apart. The object of the game was to fit a ball of wet clay to the end of the willow rod and swing it with such force that the pellet flew through the air and hit one of the opponents. Older men who played this game in their boyhood said the pellets traveled “like bullets” and “they sure hurt if they hit you.” 
In addition to providing an arena for rehearsing motor skills and coordinated action, team contact sports provide an opportunity to assess and advertise comparative coalition formidability. This can be accomplished by competing with neighboring groups, which quickly and clearly reveals each side’s physical strengths and weaknesses, and is much less costly than actual combat. Information about coalition formidability is invaluable for the formation of alliances, which was common practice between forager bands and even between tribes . All else equal, it is preferable to be allied with formidable coalitions, and inviting neighboring groups for a friendly game provides a means of vetting potential allies before making them an offer. By the same token, demonstrations of team prowess on the playing field are a means of advertising formidability to other groups. This can be used to attract other polities as allies or—importantly–discourage them from becoming enemies. Thus, engaging in intra- and intertribal games is a cost-effective means of mapping the relative formidability of communities that live close enough to aid or attack you.
A similar argument has been made regarding the use of music and dance. In small-scale societies, alliance formation often begins with one group inviting another for a feast, and, during the festivities, the prospective allies may entertain each other by performing music and dance routines. Hagen and Bryant  argue that the degree of synchrony in music and dance performances is a reliable cue of a group’s ability to coordinate action, and that such performances are used as a means of judging coalition quality.
Tellingly, athletic contests were also a common part of inter-community celebrations, and team games were often played between villages. For example, among the Twana, “a competitive game of strength…was played between village teams of grown men at potlatch. . . . A long pole was held horizontally at chest height between two parallel rows of contestants facing one another. The contestants pushed on their own side of the pole, trying to force the opposing team back” . Among the Inuit, “many different kinds of games . . . are associated with the festivals invariably held when guests are to be entertained” , including team ball games. Rasmussen notes that these games were aimed, in part, at the assessment of prowess: “underlying all the games is the dominant passion of rivalry, always seeking to show who is best in various forms of activity: the swiftest, the strongest, the cleverest and most adroit” . Even boys sometimes competed at the inter-tribal level. For example, Arapaho boys played “with boys of their own age of another tribe, like the Kiowa, Comanche, or Apache” . When camped near each other, boys would call “to the boys in the other camps. Some boys from there might answer back. That meant the challenge had been accepted. . . . Sides began to approach each other. Soon there was a clash, a running and jumping against each other, kicking each other with the feet. Each tried to dodge the other” .
The Olympic Games are hunter-gatherer alliance formation writ large. Like inter-community feasting in small-scale societies, the Games are an international celebration aimed at promoting peace and cooperation between autonomous polities, the main difference being the number and size of the participating nations. And like hunter-gatherer celebrations, the Games prominently feature athletic competition, which includes contests between teams of males. Men’s Olympic team sports provide an arena in which each nation can showcase the prowess of a representative coalition of its fighting-age males, and simultaneously assess the comparative formidability of its allies and rivals. The opening ceremonies also provide a unique opportunity for the host nation to broadcast its coalition quality through the use of performance—which China used to stunning advantage in 2008. Although wars are no longer fought with spears, clubs, and knives, combat still requires coordinated action and is still largely conducted by males. Thus, throughout most of human history, it would have been advantageous to monitor and periodically assess comparative male coalition quality. As a “way of fighting without fighting”, male contact sports provide a visceral means of doing so.
- Apostolou, M. (2015). The athlete and the spectator inside the man: A Cross-cultural investigation of the evolutionary origins of athletic behavior. Cross-Cultural Research, 49(2), 151-173.
- Symons, D. (1978). Play and aggression. A study of Rhesus monkeys. Columbia University Press.
- Bolton & Smith. (1992). The social nature of play fighting and play chasing: Mechanisms and strategies underlying cooperation and compromise. In J. Barkow, L. Cosmides, & J. Tooby (Eds.), The adapted mind (429-444). New York: Oxford University Press.
- Deaner, R. O., & Smith, B. A. (2013). Sex differences in sports across 50 societies. Cross-Cultural Research, 47(3), 268-309.
- Rasmussen, K. (1931). The Netsilik Eskimos: Social life and spiritual culture. Report of the Fifth Thule Expedition 1921-24, Vol. VIII, no. 1-2. Copenhagen: Gyldendalske Boghandel, Nordisk Forlag.
- Opler, M. (1946). Childhood and youth in Jicarilla Apache society. Los Angeles: The Southwest Museum.
- Wrangham, R. W. (1999). Evolution of coalitionary killing. Yearbook of Physical Anthropology, 42, 1-39.
- Scalise Sugiyama, M., Mendoza M., White F., & Sugiyama L. (2016.) Assembling the CIA module: Coalitional play fighting in forager societies. Poster presented at the annual meeting of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society, Vancouver, BC.
- Warner, W. L. (1931). Murngin warfare. Oceania, 1(4), 457-494.
- Barclay, W. S. (1904). The Land of Magellanes, with some account of the Ona and other Indians. The Geographical Journal, 23(1), 62-79.
- Burch, E. (2005). Alliance and conflict: The world system of the Iñupiaq Eskimos. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
- Walker, J. R. (1905). Sioux Games. I. The Journal of American Folklore, 18(71), 277-290.
- Bogoras, W. 1904-1909. The Chukchee. The Jesup North Pacific Expedition; Memoirs of the American Museum of Natural History, 7.
- Ewers, J.C. 1958. The Blackfeet Raiders on the Northern Plains. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
- Hagen, E. H., & Bryant, G. A. (2003). Music and dance as a coalition signaling system. Human Nature, 14(1), 21-51.
- Elmendorf, W. W. & Kroeber, A. L. (1992). The Structure of Twana culture with comparative notes on the structure of Yurok culture: Pre-White tribal lifeways on Washington’s Hood Canal. Pullman, WA: WSU Press.
- Rasmussen, K. (1930). The intellectual culture of the Hudson Bay Eskimos. Report of the Fifth Thule Expedition 1921-1924, Vol. VII. Coperhagen: Gyldendalske Boghandel, Nordisk Forlag.
- Hilger, M. I. (1952). Arapaho child life and its cultural background. Smithsonian Institution Bureau of American Ethnology, 148. Washington D. C.: Government Printing Office.