If an Ancient Egyptian Saw Our “Modern” Sports, He’d Recognize a Few

Bowl like and Egyptian and box like and ancient Greek? Some sports that we think of as modern are actually inherited from the great civilizations of the past. The ancients had to entertain themselves somehow, after all they did not have internet or television. So they came up with all these delightful sports.

Here are 10 ‘modern’ sports that are actually quite ancient:

1. Field hockey

Marble slab. Two hockey players fight for the ball. Two other players stand on each corner.
Marble tombstone found in Kerameikos, Athens, c. 510 BC. National Archaeological Museum of Athens. (Photo: Zde/CCBYSA3.0)
Egypt and Persia

Field hockey can claim ancestors from all over the world. For instance, in a 4,000 year old Egyptian tomb there is a painting that modern viewers interpret as two hockey players. In it, the men face each other and lean forward as they quarrel with ‘hockey’ sticks trying to control a ball. This painting is from Kheti’s tomb in the necropolis of Beni Hasan. And Egyptian texts even have the kindness to describe the ball used: it was leather bound and filled with papyrus. While the “hockey stick” came from carved palm trees. Persian records describe a similar game during the same period.

Athenians add new features

From Africa and Asia it might have spread to Europe. For 2,500 years later “hockey” makes its debut in Athenian art. The Greek representation, carved on a marble tombstone found in Kerameikos, is strikingly similar to the Egyptian painting described above. The pose of the main players is replicated. Although now the figures are naked, for Hellenes believed that nakedness and athleticism went hand in hand. Another difference is the addition of extra players that appear at the sides of the panel.

Mongolian beiku

In around 1000 AD we are back in Asia, but further East. And the Mongols are enjoying their own hockey: “beiku.” The sport consists of two teams that roam across the steppe hitting an apricot root with branches. The Daur of Mongolia play beiku to this day.

An English king is not into hockey

By the Middle Ages many European countries were playing their own version of hockey. And it most have been popular, for in 1363 King Edward III of England referred to hockey by name. He mentioned it while banning “idle sports,” hockey included, in favor of archery. Other victims of the decree were football and handball.

The game remained popular in spite of the royal opposition. And centuries later British invading troops took the game to North America, India, and Oceania.

2. Boxing

Painting. Two boys boxing.
Fresco of boxing boys, 1500 BC. From Akrotiri. Greece. Kept at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. (Photo: Marsyas/CCBYSA3.0)

The earliest evidence of boxing comes from a 4,000-year-old relief in Sumer (modern Iraq). In the relief, two boxers hit each other with bare hands.

And about five hundred years later the sport makes its appearance in Minoan art, in the wall paintings in Santorini, Greece. In this particular mural, two boys punch each other in the face with what looks like modern boxing gloves.

By 1350 BC, boxing reaches the walls of a monument in Thebes, Egypt. While the gloves are again missing, the fighters have gained a group of spectators.

Homer writes about it in the Iliad

Now the written evidence. Greek poet Homer wrote The Iliad in the 9th century BC. In it, Patroclus, one of the epic’s heroes, dies. And his friends hold funeral games in his honor. As it turns out, boxing was an appropriate funeral sport. So, Homer describes a match between two warriors in all its bloody glory. He also shares what a boxing champion could expect to win. In the Iliad, the winner receives a mule, while the loser gets an expensive cup.

An Olympic sport

In 688 BC boxing gains an official spot in the Greek Olympic Games. And becomes ubiquitous in all types of art. Many pottery vases depict boxing matches. And there is a surviving life-size bronze statue that shows a weary boxer after a bout. The ‘Boxer at rest‘ shows a Greek athlete’s attire: they wore a leather strap around their knuckles and boxed in the nude. Later on Romans, who fought in more clothes, added metal studs to the knuckle strap, for an extra punch.

In all these cultures the contests finished when one of the participants surrendered or could not fight any longer. That is, except in the Roman version, for gladiators fought to the death.

3. Ice skating

How to move around during freezing winters in a region full of lakes? Tying bones to the sole of the shoes. At least that is the idea Scandinavians had 4,000 years ago, or earlier. Archaeologists found several pairs of bone skates in Scandinavia that date to around 2000 BC.

Finnish origins?

But skating was probably invented a thousand years earlier, according to researchers of Oxford University and King’s College London. And the birth place might be Finland, a country that has 10,000 lakes. Which is a lot of frozen water to deal with during winter. So the Finns would have used the skates as a means of transportation, and as an aid in hunting.

Traditionally, people made skates out of the leg bone of cattle or horses. The bone was cut to fit the size of the skater’s feet. And each end of the bone had holes, so they could be fastened to the shoe with leather straps. The fat in the bone would have reduced the friction with the ice, researchers say. Plus, skaters also used a long stick to help propel themselves.

A technical breakthrough

By the Middle Ages skates were quite popular in another watery country: the Netherlands. Holland is full of canals, so the Dutch used skates to travel from village to village. Thanks to the writings of the secretary of the Archbishop of Canterbury -who may not have approved of the sport – we know that by the 12th century children in England skated on frozen lakes for fun.

A century later there was a technical breakthrough: the Dutch replaced the bone by a blade, which greatly diminished friction. But the contraption still had to be tied to the boot. It would take another 600 years for someone, in the United States, to attach the blades directly to the boots.

4. Weightlifting

Floor mosaic which shows two young blonde women in bikinis practicing sports.
The ‘bikini girls’, mosaic floor in Villa del Casale, Sicily, Italy. c 250 AD. (Photo: José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro/CCBYSA4.0)

Lifting heavy weights to gain strength might be as old as humanity itself. But when looking for historical evidence, writing-loving Greece is a good place to start.

Ancient sources say Milo of Croton was a famous wrestler that lived in the 6th century BC. Milo had an impressive record of triumphs in the Greek festivals (6 Olympic victories, and 26 wins in other competitions). When asked about his strength, Milo related that in his teens he lifted a newborn calf one day, and walked with it on his shoulders. Everyday after that, he repeated the task, with the same animal, for the same distance. After 4 years he was lifting, and walking around with, a bull.

Let rocks do the talking

From the same 6th century BC there are several Greek rocks inscribed with legends such as: “Bybon, son of Phola, has lifted me over head with one hand.” That particular sandstone weighs 316 pounds (143 kg) and is on display at the Archaeological Museum of Olympia, Greece. Another 1,060 pound (480 kg) rock from Santorini lets us know that Eumastas lifted her.

Rome: from Seneca to the Bikini girls

There is also evidence of weight lifting in Rome. Seneca, the stoic philosopher of the 1st century AD, lived briefly over a bath-house, places where Romans not only bathed but also exercised. In a letter he wrote: “Conjure up in your imagination all the sounds that make one hate one’s ears. I hear the grunts of musclemen exercising and jerking those leaden weights around; they are working hard, or pretending to.”

Further confirmation comes from the so- called ‘bikini girls’, a mosaic floor in Villa Romana del Casale, in Italy. This 3rd century mosaic shows women exercising: some throw a ball and others run, while one of them walks around holding dumbbells. (See also: Population control alert: these ancient cities had 300,000 inhabitants or more)

5. Soccer

Scholars have found many similarities between soccer and an ancient Mesoamerican game. That game was played for thousands of years -before the arrival of the Europeans-, from Mexico to Costa Rica. Every self-respecting Mesoamerican city had its own ball court. Usually next to a temple, for the game had religious connotations.

Mesoamerican version: huge courts and human sacrifice

So far, archaeologists have unearthed about 1,300 of these courts. And each one consist of a rectangular field flanked, on its long sides, by sloping stone walls.

The Grand Ball Court, one of the courts in the city of Chichén Itzá, is the largest. Measuring 168 x 79 m (551 x 230 ft), it is almost twice the size of an American football field.

Olmec, Maya, Toltec… each culture had its own name and rules for the game. But most versions had two opposing teams. Each side had from two to six players. The team that scored first, won. To score, the players had to throw a rubber ball through the opposing team’s hoop, a bit like basketball, for the stone hoops hanged several feet above ground. And the players could not touch the ball with the hands, only with feet, knees, hips, head or elbows. Given the difficulty of that task, the game could last for days.

The Maya sacrificed the loosing side, for they did love human sacrifice. Although some believe they only killed the loosing captain.

China’s sacrifice-less version

Less known in the West is China’s ball game tsu chu. It exists since the 3rd century BC. According to a surviving manual, the army used it to train soldiers. For playing tsu chu requires some skill: two opposing teams kick a ball into a small net (40 cm wide) held by two bamboo sticks.

Worldwide appeal

Japan, Australia, Greece, Rome, Scotland, among other cultures, also had kicking ball games. Some were played without teams in a small circle (Japanese kemari), others involved two opposing villages running through the great outdoors to score a goal in the antagonist’s church (European medieval mob football). Perhaps modern soccer is so popular because many cultures have been playing a variation of it for centuries.

6. Bowling

Seems like a Sunday outdoors. Men are women are having a leisurely time. In the forefront, three men are bowling on the grass.
Detail of The bowling game by Dutch painter Jan Steen, c. 1655. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria. (Photo: Wikimedia/Public domain)

A variant of bowling was played in Egypt more than 5,000 years ago (3200 BC). Evidence comes from famous archaeologist Flinders Petrie who found “nine vase-shaped stones (…) that can only stand on their circular flat ends” -similar to bowling pins-, that were buried along four stone balls, in a child’s tomb, in Egypt. To a modern eye it seems like a bowling set. It included three marble arches. Where the arches used instead of a lane? Perhaps. The exact way in which the game was played is not clear.

Later discoveries (2nd – 3rd centuries AD) in Fayoum, near Cairo, also point to an Egyptian origin. For Traces of another ‘bowling’ game were unearthed. This time the finds include a four-meter lane, one pin, and two stone balls. Archaeologists believe it was played by two participants simultaneously, one trying to block the other from making a strike.

Read next: Tokyo move aside: these big cities were thriving 4,000 years ago

German kegel

Better documented is the game played in about 300 AD in Germany. It was a religious ceremony that took place in church. In daily life, Germans used to carry around a pin-like wooden object called kegel. They used it for sports and protection. For this religious game they would arrange kegels on one side of the cloister of the church and stand on the other end. The cloister formed a natural runway. From their end they would roll a stone towards the kegel-pins that represented paganism or Evil. If they succeeded at toppling them, they had defeated Evil and were, therefore, purified of their sins.

Standardization in the Americas

The game spread throughout Europe, and by the 14th century it was popular in England. German, Dutch, and English settlers took a 9-pin version of bowling to the United States, where it was eventually standardized into its 10-pin modern form in the 19th century.

7. Skiing

Drawing of a stick-man on a rock. He wears what look like short skis.
Hunter in “skis.” Rock art in Alta, Norway. Made between 2,000 and 7,000 years ago. (Wikimedia/CCBYSA3.0)

People started gliding in skis during the last Ice Age -with all that snow lying around it would make sense. And according to some scholarly accounts, not only “people,” but probably our relatives the Cro-Magnon as well.

The prove is on the wall

There is a cave in China with prehistoric paintings that depict humans and animals. Archaeologists, as well as many laymen, believe some of the humans are wearing skis. The paintings are between 10,000 and 30,000 years old.

Interestingly, the Chinese were not the only ones practicing the sport in prehistoric times. A Norwegian cave, in the Island of Tro, has similar paintings that show “skiers.” But they were done much later, around 5,000 years ago.

Oldest skis

The oldest skis in the archaeological record were found in Russia. They are between 7,000 and 8,000 years old. And they look pretty much like the traditional skis still in use in some rural regions of China -for example in Xinjiang, the region where the cave paintings are. There the villagers still make their skis out of long wooden slabs they cover with horse skin. And they bind the skis to their boots with leather straps.

Again, Scandinavia is not far behind. Old frozen skis found in the area look like the Russian and Chinese versions, and date to 3,500 years ago. They are now in museums.

As for the first written record, the Chinese are still in the lead: they wrote about the sport during the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD).

8. Lacrosse

Three Native American men stand holding lacrosse sticks. They are dressed in loincloths decorated with feathers.
Litography of Native American lacrosse players by George Catlin, c. 1840. Smithsonian Museum, Washington. (Wikimedia/Public domain)

Native North Americans were playing Lacrosse long before the arrival of the Europeans. The Cherokee called the sport danahwahuwsdi (“little brother of war”), while tribes in Mississippi called it pakita (“to hit”). Although there were regional variations, the modern game of lacrosse is quite recognizable in most: two teams armed with sticks -which they use to carry a ball- try to make a goal.

It takes a village, or two

To play they used a deer skin ball and long sticks that had a net on one end. Usually, two villages played against each other. Sometimes it was part of a ritual, others it was used to solve disputes among the villages. And others still, it was just a way to have fun. And since ancient lacrosse could be quite rough -hitting the opponent with the stick was allowed-, the Natives considered it a great training for war, for it was also great to build endurance, since a match could last up to three days, and the field could be miles long.

Europeans warm up to the game

European settlers wrote about the game in the 16th century. Three centuries later an observer describes it: “(the player with the ball) immediately sets out at full speed towards the opposite goal. If too closely pursued, he throws the ball in the direction of his own side, who takes up the race.”

Lacrosse was baptized in the 17th century by French missionary Jean de Brébeuf. As to why he named it la crosse (the cross) is debated, but maybe it was because he was, after all, a priest.

By the 19th century the settlers had warmed up to the game. They formed clubs and modified the rules by limiting the number of players, the extension of the field, and the duration of a match.

9. Chess

Medieval painting. Two robbed men sit on chairs. A giant chess board is depicted between them.
King Alfonso X of Castile (Spain) playing chess. llustration from the Book of games, 1283. Kept at El Escorial, Madrid. (Wikimedia/Public domain)

Diplomatically, let’s give the credit for the invention of chess to the Silk Road. For there is a heated debate whether it was born in China or India.


The earliest really chess-like game, chatrang, was played in India from at least the 6th century AD. It takes its name from the four divisions (chaturanga) of the Indian army: elephants, chariots, knights, and pawns. The Indians took those four elements and turned them into four game pieces that are moved around a board. Just like in war, the game requires the use of strategy. Then, they added two more pieces: kings and counselors. In modern chess counselors have morphed into queens, and elephants into bishops, while chariots have kept their Persian name rukh (“chariot”).

Unlike other ancient board games, each piece moves through the board in a unique way. Kings, rooks, and knights move the same way today than they did 1,500 years ago. The board had eight squares on each side. And the game ended when either the king or all the pieces of the opponent were captured. It required two players. So pretty much modern chess.

Which came first?

Some say that an Indian predecessor of this game, perhaps ashtapada, made its way to China with Buddhist pilgrims and traders, and evolved into xiangqi (the game of go). Others strongly disagree -very strongly- and say it was the other way around: that the game was born in China and traders took it to India. Plenty of books have been written on the origins of chess.

There is consensus, though, that from India it spread to Persia and the surrounding areas, and then to Europe, perhaps with the Islamic invasion of the 8th century AD. Although archaeologists recently unearthed an ivory chess piece in Albany, Europe, that predates the invasion by two centuries.

10. Golf

Painting. A group of Chinese men play golf outside.
Ming Emperor Xuande playing chui wan in the 15th century.
Palace Museum, Beijing, China. (Photo: Wikimedia/Public domain)

The paternity of golf is contested too. This time the possible inventors are Rome and/or China. Judge for yourself.

The case for Rome

Some scholars point to a Roman origin. By 30 BC ancient Italians were playing a game we do not know much about, except it used a ball called paganica. Paganicas were filled with feathers and bound in leather. By the time the Roman legions invaded Scotland (the invasion of 140 AD under Emperor Severus) the paganica ball was being hit with a club towards a target. The fewer strokes needed to get there, the better. Golf, right?

The Latin conquests probably disseminated the game throughout Europe. In the 13th century the Dutch were playing kolf. Kolf players appear in many dutch paintings from the 15th century onwards. The target could be anything from a tree to a hole. The Netherlands and Scotland were active trading partners from the 14th to 17th century, so, scholars argue, there was ample opportunity for sailors to take their club and ball game to the Scottish shores -where modern golf hails from (15th century).

Meanwhile in China

At the other end of Eurasia, the Chinese were inventing their own golf. During the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD) they entertained themselves with chu iwan. They hit a ball towards targets using ten different types of clubs. The clubs were inlaid with jade and gold.

And there are some nice paintings that show, for example, Ming emperor Xuande playing in a small court outdoors. Another painting shows women of the Ming dynasty having a go at the game. There is even a book, the Wan Jing, written around the 13th century, that describes the rules of chui wan. Therefore, other scholars believe golf originated in China and Mongolian travelers introduced it to Europe.

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