This is a summary of history’s first sport as revealed through archaeological and/or literary evidence, excluding running. While it could be argued that running is the first sport recorded, the earliest records of footraces don’t appear to be in competitive settings. For example, ceremonial footraces in Egypt can be traced back as early as 3000 BC, but these races were not competitive, as opposed to, for example, the Greek stadion race traced back to 776 BC.
History’s First Sport: Wrestling
The ancient Mesopotamian corner of the world is home to the earliest evidence of history’s first sport: wrestling. The Epic of Gilgamesh, one of mankind’s earliest complete literary works (dated around c. 2100 BC), is one of the oldest records of this first sport. Toward the beginning of the epic, the king Gilgamesh wrestles fiercely with the wild man Enkidu, each attempting to throw the other. The tale makes it clear that this was not a fight for life, but rather a sportive competition.
Another early record of wrestling, this one archaeological rather than literary, lies in ancient Egypt. Wall paintings in one of the tombs at Beni Hasan, dated around 2000 BC, depict several dozen images of wrestlers in various holds, throws, and other positions. These paintings very clearly depict a form of ancient Egyptian wrestling, though detailed rules of the sport are unknown. Nevertheless, these paintings in combination with the Epic of Gilgamesh leave little room for debate that wrestling is history’s first sport.
Boxing is a fairly close runner-up for history’s first sport, tailing wrestling by only a few centuries. The earliest known evidence for the sport is a mural from ancient Crete depicting two boxers, dated between 1600 and 1500 BC. (This was likely an early form of pygmachia, Greek boxing.) A few murals in ancient Egyptian tombs dating from the 18th to 16th centuries BC appear to depict boxers as well, but there is some debate as to whether these paintings depict competitive boxing. At least one such mural clearly depicts ceremonial boxing, in which the fighters represented the mythological gods Horus and Seth. Regardless, evidence of wrestling in the Epic of Gilgamesh still predates these murals by at least 300 years.
Myths and Misconceptions
Several sources online and in print make the claim that wrestling can be traced back to 3000 BC in ancient Greece. While wrestling does appear to be history’s first sport recorded, there does not appear to be any archaeological or literary evidence that anchors the sport that far back in antiquity, let alone in Greek culture. The earliest records of palé (ancient Greek wrestling) can be traced back to the 8th century BC, as it was mentioned in both the Iliad and Odyssey and, additionally, was introduced to the ancient Olympic Games in 708 BC.
As an aside, Irish oral tradition relates that the Gaelic ball game that gave way to the sports hurling and shinty dates back to 1200 BC, but no archaeological or literary evidence suggests this. Were this the case, this unnamed Gaelic sport would be a contender for the runner-up sport. However, as it stands, the earliest literary reference to hurling, the offspring of this unnamed Gaelic sport, dates to the 5th century AD.
Bard, K. A., & Shubert, S. B. (2014). Encyclopedia of the archaeology of ancient Egypt. London: Routledge.
Anonymous, & George, A. (2003). The epic of Gilgamesh. Penguin Classics.Miller, C. (2004, May).
Silverman, D. P. (2003). Ancient Egypt (US edition). Oxford University Press.
Miller, S. G. (2006). Ancient Greek athletics. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Rouse, P. (2015). Sport and Ireland: A history. Oxford: Oxford University Press history.