Study examines the ancient roots of team sports

June 28 (UPI) — In a new study, anthropologists argue team sports encouraged evolutionarily advantageous traits among early hunter-gatherers.

Biologists have previously suggested play among animals serves an educational purpose. Chase games, for example, can help animals develop the stamina and speed needed to evade predators. Likewise, play fighting can prepare animals for territorial combat.

Researchers believe play offered similar benefits to humans. But unlike animals, humans partake in both one-on-one and team play.

Playing games as teammates, anthropologists hypothesized, may have helped early humans develop the skills and strategies needed to take down large predators or raid the settlements of rival groups.

To explore their theory, researchers examined the scientific literature on the development of coalitional play fighting among hunter-gatherer societies.

Anthropologist Michelle Scalise Sugiyama and her colleagues at the University of Oregon surveyed the descriptions of hunter-gatherer groups in the Ethnographic Atlas, a database compiled by researcher George P. Murdock.

The database revealed evidence of hunter-gatherer team contact games among 46 of the 100 documented culture regions. The most common contact games involved using sticks to hit objects — and sometimes people. Kicking games and sports resembling rugby were also popular.

These early forms of sport may have offered hunter-gatherers the opportunity to learn and perfect the types of physical maneuvers and team strategies needed for hunting and violent combat — maneuvers like striking, blocking, kicking, dodging and projectile-throwing.

“Interestingly, mock warfare was found in 39 percent of culture clusters and boys’ mock warfare in 26 percent,” Scalise Sugiyama said in a news release. “This suggests that motivation to engage in coalitional play fighting emerges in childhood.”

Scalise Sugiyama and her colleagues detailed their theory and the supporting evidence this week in the journal Human Nature.

“The widespread evidence for such games among hunter-gather societies suggests that the motivation to engage in them is a universal feature of human psychology, generating behavior that develops, rehearses, and refines the coalitional combat skills used in lethal raiding,” Scalise Sugiyama said.