Team Games & Warfare: Is There An Evolutionary Link?

“Team sports have long been known to bring out our tribal instincts. But did they first emerge to train us for warfare? That’s the hypothesis of Michelle Scalise Sugiyama at the University of Oregon.

She scoured the ethnographic record for information about the physical strategies used by traditional societies during their typical battles, such as when they raid another camp.

Her final list of eight items included moves such as kicking, striking and blocking blows to the body, throwing and dodging objects, and group coordination.

“They have to track the behaviours and infer the intentions of multiple individuals,” says Scalise Sugiyama.

She then compared this list with ethnographic accounts of team games, many of which resembled Western sports such as rugby.

Sure enough, 36 per cent of the societies played a game incorporating at least half of the strategies that are crucial for battle. Scalise Sugiyama thinks this is probably an underestimate because anthropologists sometimes see such games as trivial activities.

“If you’re lucky, you get a couple of pages of information,” she says.

But if team sports do serve an important evolutionary function, we should take play more seriously.” (Robson, 2018, p.67).


Robson, D. (2018) R Toys Us? New Scientist. 22/29 December 2018, pp.65-67.


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