World Cup 2022 B.C.E. | A Brief History of Ancient Ball Games

As the FIFA World Cup contest continues in Qatar, how long have human been playing with balls? From ancient Chinese hairy sheepskin spheres to Egyptian children's linen rags and deadly Aztec dodgeball, here is the full guide to football's earliest ancestors

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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pedestal tombstone kouros
The relief on the pedestal tombstone kouros, perhaps of the grave athlete. Pentelic marble, circa 510-500 B.C.E., found at Kerameikos, Athens.Credit: Zde
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Shocking, how the Saudi Arabian soccer team beat Argentina in the 2022 World Cup taking place in Qatar.

Given that the Saudi probability of prevailing was estimated at 8.7 percent according to the sports data group Gracenote, the 2-1 outcome was a dramatic drubbing, before much of the world no less.

From the sidelines of society where the outcome was a matter of indifference, one wonders why some people (i.e., mostly men) watch the “Beautiful Game” at all, let alone in packs – and the answers seem to be many and myriad.

In any case, it seems to serve a deep psychological need chiefly among males. A 2014 study encompassing 33 countries found that men tend to play competitive sports more than women in all of them, and a study the year before encompassing 50 countries found men twice as likely as women to watch games.

In other words, the mania for competitive sports and ball games seems hardwired. And if evolution is involved, one must wonder: When did this mishegoss begin? Did prehistoric persons play ball games?

Yes they did, though note that “prehistory” means different times in different places and no evidence has been found of erectus or other human variants indulging in competitive games involving spherical objects. They may have, but if they were kicking or even just throwing balls, they would presumably not have been made of rock; and if they were made of organic matter, they would not have survived the eons.

So moving onto relatively modern times, what is the earliest ball game of which we know? And from what game did soccer, or football, evolve?

Tsu chu, according to none other than soccer’s governing body FIFA, is apparently the answer to both – its name literally means “kick the ball.” Sometimes transliterated as “cuju,” the game involved kicking a ball made of pigskin or dogskin stuffed with feathers into a small net located high above the ground – as opposed to today’s soccer players who kick a ball into a big net located behind a goalie. Like today’s footballers, tsu chuers were not allowed to propel the ball with their hands.

Based on historical records, tsu chu was popular in the Han dynasty that began in 202 B.C.E., and would evolve and morph over time. But if it was already a thing 2,200 years ago, that indicates it emerged earlier. Legend even whispers that its origin lay in training soldiers at the time of the god also known as the mythical Yellow Emperor Huang-Di as much as 5,000 years ago. Or a bit later. Some date the mythical emperor’s time to 4,500 years ago, and some even later. But while the balls were real if crude (looking sort of like a pomegranate), perhaps the key word here is “mythical.”

The mythical Yellow Emperor Huang-Di. On his way to a tsu chu match?Credit: Li Ung Bin, Outlines of Chinese

In any case, actual balls looking like spherical dim sum made of sheepskin and stuffed with hair, were found in the Yanghai cemetery in northwest China from about 3,000 years ago, give or take a century.

What was done with these balls is pure conjecture because no sporting accoutrements such as sticks were found. But the researchers surmise they were used in a team competitive sport perhaps akin to polo, according to Patrick Wertmann, an archaeologist at the University of Zurich and member of the team reporting on the balls.

Two of the three balls were found in graves with men who may have been horse riders, based on other gear found in the burials. No polo sticks were found but the relative uniformity of the Yanghai balls' size, at 7.2 to 9.2 centimeters (2.75 to 3.5 inches) in diameter, supports the thesis that they were used in games, according to the Smithsonian. Two of the balls were marked with a red cross.

3,000-year-old balls found in ChinaCredit: Patrick Wertmann / University of Zurich

An even older sphere that was plausibly a ball for play was found in the 4,500-year-old burial of an Egyptian child, which was excavated in 1912. It was relatively vegan: a linen rag rolled into a ball and tied into shape with string.

Since ancient grave goods buried with the dead were theoretically designated for use in the afterlife – in the case of ancient Egypt, we know this specifically from the Books of Breathing (a manual for the dead), and much more – one can imagine the ball being a cherished toy buried with the child. Football? No, not yet; perhaps nothing competitive, but a ball it was.

Also, a mural found in a tomb at Beni Hasan, dating to the Egyptian 12th Dynasty almost 4,000 years ago, shows two men with sticks and a ball who look, according to some, like they’re playing hockey.

Reproduction of Beni Hasan mural showing two Egyptians playing what appears to be a ball-and-stick sportCredit: Wikimedia Commons

Winner takes all

Moving onto the pre-Colombian Americas, we find a popular game of deadly dodgeball that the Aztec dubbed ollamalīztli and Mayans called pitz, involving a rubber ball weighing as much as 4 kilograms (nearly 9 pounds) that could and probably did break bones.

The game’s dating to at least 3,600 years ago is based on the discovery of a monumental ball court and balls from about that time.

An ancient Mesoamerican version of dodgeball, which could have deadly consequences.Credit: GNM Digital Library

Its rules, if any, have been lost to time. Archaeologists suspect that any surviving losers were sacrificed, at least in later variations of the game. The Mayans for one produced murals explicitly depicting human sacrifice on ball courts. However, the thinking is that they were playing pitz as a proxy for war, so perhaps that explains the murderous aspect of the finale.

Later versions of the game did not end in slaughter and may have involved propelling the ball with the hips. In fact, the game survives to this day, in a benign incarnation called ulama, using a rubber ball.

The goal in the ball court at the Maya-Toltec city of Chichén Itzá, MexicoCredit: KÂre Thor Olsen

In North America, among the Indian populations the most popularly known ancient game is stickball – which also served, in some groups such as the Cherokee, as a proxy for battle. When stickball began is not known, but it goes back at least centuries and could involve hundreds of players. Stickball would evolve into lacrosse.

There were ball games in games-mad ancient Greece, too, one of which is also thought to have been a cousin of hockey about 2,500 years ago. A picture of the game appears on the base of a funerary statue (which is gone) from Kerameikos, Athens, discovered in 1922. Actually, the Greek game seems, from this armchair, to be not dissimilar to the ancient Egyptian one. A second funerary base missing its statue, found right by this first one, also shows a ball game.

In Scotland, meanwhile, archaeologists have found numerous carved stone balls from the Late Neolithic and Bronze Age, some exquisitely ornate. Some were found at Skara Brae, the Neolithic coastal town where newly introduced sheep would eat seaweed because they had no choice. Not all are perfectly round; most are knobbed; and their use is baffling. Some think weapon à la bolas; some think ritual; some think sink stones for fishing nets. One innovative theory even suggests that at least some were used as ball bearings to glacially transport giant stones, such as the rocks used to build Stonehenge. But nobody thinks game.

A carved stone ball dating to the Neolithic.Credit: Johnbod

So, ball games go back thousands of years at least, culminating in the likes of today’s soccer – but thankfully not in all aspects. Given the fate of Mesoamerican losers, perhaps the Argentine team should count its blessings.

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