The history of ball sports extends across countless cultures throughout recorded history. Solid archaeological records of ball sports extend back as early as 1600 BC – for example, discoveries of rubber balls used in the ancient sports like the Mesoamerican ball game. However, with the phrase “ball sports” being so broad and inclusive, games that could fall under this category have undoubtedly been played for millennia even before that time. From American-football-style games in ancient Greece to field hockey sports in medieval Europe, ball sports seem to have had a presence in almost every continent at some point in history.
The ancient Chinese sport cuju is perhaps the oldest soccer-like sport in the recorded history of ball sports (though it does not directly tie in with the history of soccer). Its earliest literary record lies in Zhan Guo Ce, a historical political textbook dating around the 3rd century BC – though it’s very likely the sport was practiced for even centuries before that point. The sport originated in China, but throughout its life was adopted by other countries including Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, with its popularity dropping off beginning in the 14th century AD.
Cuju‘s long life and cultural variety led to a number of adaptations of the sport throughout its history. Its primary elements remained fairly consistent with characteristics of modern soccer, though. It was played in a rectangular field typically marked with low walls or thread. There were one or two goals positioned in the middle of the field, which players attempted to pass the ball through. In the traditional style of the game, zhuqui, there was only one goal, and each team would try to pass the ball through it from their respective sides in order to score.
A variation of cuju called baida had individual players taking turns at attempting to score a goal without interference, earning extra points for demonstration of skill and style. This variation was especially popular among women.
Another notable Chinese ball sport was the game of chuiwan, played as early as the 5th century AD. Depictions and descriptions of this game bear remarkable similarity to golf, as the goal of the player was to use a club to drive a small wooden ball into a hole. It’s theorized that this game may have been brought back to Europe sometime after European contact beginning the 13th century AD, leading to the development of golf, though this is subject to much debate.
Ball sports seem to have been less popular in the ancient Middle East than they were in other regions. Cultures here seemed to have preferred combat sports such as malla-yuddha, Turkish wrestling, and the like. However, ancient Egyptian illustrations at various sites depict people engaging in what might be considered as ball sports. One of these depictions clearly shows ancient Egyptians juggling, and others seem to depict people throwing balls back and forth. Whether these illustrations depict a simple game of catch or something more structured and sport-like is unclear, but this serves as a solid anchor for the history of ball sports, as it tells us ancient Egyptian culture likely participated in games like these. This could place a historical anchor for ball sports somewhere from the end of the 4th millennium BC at the earliest to the middle of the 1st millennium BC at the latest, though solid records are scant.
Within the history of ball sports, a number of games can be found in African culture, primarily in the form of field hockey sports. However, an absence of written culture and lack of solid archaeological evidence makes it difficult to determine much of the history of these games. As such, the only references to a history or general point of origin for any sport typically lie in its legends. This complicates the matter, as oral tradition isn’t a very reliable method for determining a sport’s history. (For example, most of the Greek Panhellenic games have origin legends that attribute the start of each festival to some figure centuries before the actual date of origin suggested by archaeological evidence.)
One of these sports is the Ethiopian game of genna, which is still played today. This is a field hockey sport played in a large field without borders or markers, on which sometimes cattle graze through during a game. In this game, two teams wield hand carved sticks and attempt to pass a wooden ball through the other teams’ goal. There is no written record for this game, so oral tradition is the only account of its history. Modern players tell a legend that when Jesus was born and news of his birth reached shepherds in the local area, they were so overjoyed that they picked up their crooks, started hitting a ball around, and invented the sport on the spot. If this legend has any credibility, it would place its origin sometime within 4 to 6 AD. However, as mentioned above, it’s more likely that the sport was derived from some other field hockey game and had this legend attributed to it later on. As such, its date of origin is unclear, though it still serves as an example of the presence of ball sports in African history.
Ancient Greek culture hosted a game somewhat similar to American football – perhaps the earliest game of its kind in the history of ball sports. In the game of episkyros, played from at least the 5th century BC (likely even centuries earlier), each team would try to get a ball past the opposing team’s back line in order to score points. References to the sport indicate the game involved interceptions, fumbles, tackles, and other football-esque features. (There is a commonly cited, but false, claim that episkyros was similar to modern soccer. This is discussed in further detail here.)
Episkyros wasn’t the only popular ball game in the Mediterranean region. The sport inspired the invention of the Roman ball game harpastum, which was a sort of inversion of the former. Historical sources suggest that in this game, which was played as early as the 5th century BC, each team would attempt to keep the ball within their own zone to score points, as opposed to moving the ball past the other team’s zone. Players would pass the ball among their teammates in an effort to keep it in their zone while the opposing team would attempt to intercept it and take it back to their own. This sport was more violent than its predecessor as it involved wrestling holds in addition to tackles and the like.
Records and educated conjecture regarding the rules of both sports are detailed in their respective articles.
Medieval Europe had a substantial place in the history of ball sports. Irish hurling and Scottish shinty appear to share roots with the same Gaelic ball-and-stick sport that was played from at least the beginning of the Middle Ages. The earliest literary reference to this sport lies in the 5th century AD, though Irish oral tradition relates that hurling’s predecessor was played back in 1200 BC. Currently there is no archaeological evidence to support the claim, so it’s likely that the sport was started quite some time after this period and before the 5th century AD.
The Dark Ages and medieval period in Europe hosted many different ball sports with seemingly endless variation. Sports worthy of note are Irish caid, Welsh cnapan, and French la soule; all regional variations of mob football. These games shared the same basic format and some common characteristics, including expansive playing fields over miles of landscape, large numbers of players (sometimes reaching several thousand), and long matches lasting most of the day. In these games, each team would try to get a ball to a predetermined goal in their own parish, which was typically miles away from the starting point of the match. The method of ball handling varied for each sport among throwing, kicking, running, stick handling (as in field hockey), and even carrying atop horseback (in the case of cnapan). Most of these methods weren’t determined by written or spoken rules, but rather as a consequence of the elements of that specific game. For example, a wooden ball was used in cnapan and sometimes in la soule, which would naturally discourage kicking the ball as to avoid injury to the foot.
Teams playing these sports were typically made up of members of neighboring parishes or villages – sometimes almost the entire male population. Historical records seem to indicate these games were played almost exclusively by men, likely due to the violence and high risk of injury involved. With several hundred men skirmishing for one ball (some of them on horseback in certain cases), accidents such as broken limbs, accidental stabbings, and, occasionally, cases of unintentional manslaughter were not unheard of.
These medieval ball sports, sharing the same basic format, are thought to have heavily influenced both each other and the development of soccer, rugby, and American football. In the 19th century, what remained of the medieval Irish sport caid was mixed with elements from Irish hurling to form what is known today as Gaelic football.
Though the complete history of ball sports in Australia is unknown, Australia’s Aboriginal population has been playing a number of these games since an indeterminate point in time. Beginning in 1841, settler William Thomas (1793–1867) observed several instances of a game called marn grook. He noted all the rules he could make out, but even after watching several matches he could never fully understand the sport. To make the matter of studying the sport more difficult, the Aboriginal people hadn’t developed a written language, which meant there was and is no written record of the rules and no literary evidence to determine a date of origin of the sport. Marn grook could have been played centuries before the writings of William Thomas, though this will likely never be known.
A less competitive sport played by the Aborigines even to this day is a children’s game called woggabaliri. In this game, the goal is to use the feet and knees to keep a ball airborne, much like a hacky sack. William Blandowski (1822–1878), a Prussian scientist who spent some time in Australia among the Aboriginal people, recorded his viewing of a sport in 1857 that by all descriptions matches woggabaliri. Like marn grook, this game was likely practiced for a long time before then.
The Mesoamerican region is home to some of the oldest recorded ball sports in the world. As early as 1700 BC, the ancient Mesoamericans were crafting rubber balls from the latex of the rubber tree for a variety of uses. Alongside religious and ritualistic purposes, they also used these early rubber balls for various sports.
One of the oldest sports in the world used these same balls. Ōllamaliztli, usually called the Mesoamerican ball game, was a religious sport played by many Mesoamerican tribes from 1600 BC at the latest. In this game, two teams of two to four players each would pass a ball back and forth in an attempt to keep it in play, similar to volleyball. This sport was often used as a religious ritual as well, typically symbolizing a battle between life and death or the sun and the moon. Massive stone courts were erected in many of these ancient cities to facilitate this ritualistic game, leaving lasting evidence of its importance in Mesoamerican culture.
Pelota purépecha was another important Mesoamerican contribution to the history of ball sports. This field hockey game has ties back to 1500 BC, making it one of the oldest recorded hockey sports – and as a variation of the game is still practiced today in Mexico, it may also be one of the longest lived sports in history. This game has a tradition for nighttime play that gives it a memorable, unique twist. At night, when it would become too dark to see the ball, players would swap the normal ball with a wooden one soaked in pine resin and light it on fire. The fiery projectile would become much easier to see, illuminating the court around it. Like the daytime version, this nighttime variation is still played by some communities today, prolonging the life of perhaps one of the oldest games in the history of ball sports.
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