When we think about games and athletics today, we often end up thinking about things like football, handball and basketball. While these sports have a very modern feel to them, the truth is that our ancient ancestors played games that were quite similar! However, the further back you go, the more hilariously dangerous and in some cases frightening the sport can look! The games our ancestors played must have been amazing to watch, and in some cases, deadly to actually play.
Calcio Fiorentino was a game that originated during the 1500s in the city of Florence, Italy. It put two teams of around 30 men onto the field, and goals were scored by putting a ball over a goal line. It sounds simple enough, but this sport became known as one of the most dangerous games that you could play in Europe at the time. For many years, the only real rule was that kicks to the head were not allowed; everything else, it was presumed, was fair game. Fascinatingly enough, after a 200 year hiatus, this game returned to Florence in the 1930s and is still played to this day, though with more rules and more referees.
The Mayans of Central America played a game called pitz, which was both described the colonizing Spanish and depicted in their art. This game was played with a heavy rubber ball, and goals were scored by kicking or throwing the ball through a vertical hoop that was set high up on a wall. Both teams seemed to use the same goal, with scorekeepers keeping track of who sent the ball through the hoop. Human sacrifice through beheading is thought to be a part of this game, though the question of whether the winning team or the losing team was sacrificed is up in the air.
Many ancient sports seem to simply be less safe, more violent versions of our modern sports, but pankration is actually a less safe, more violent version of two sports. In this Ancient Greek game, two men entered the ring and engaged in a round of wrestling and punching. In later versions, competitors were allowed to wrap their hands in leather, but this was not a part of the earliest versions. The rules stated that biting and gouging at the other person’s face with one’s fingernails was not appropriate, but just about everything else was.
When there wasn’t a handy war around, people in medieval Europe would hold jousts instead. A joust consists of two people in armor on horse back racing at each other along either side of a long rail. As the horses passed one another, the riders would use long wooden poles, known as lances, to knock the other person off of the horse. Keeping in mind the fact that the horses would have built up quite a head of speed, and that there was certainly no safety measures taken beyond the armor, even this game could be quite fatal. Flying wood splinters could fly into a person’s face, and the trauma of being thrown off of a fast moving horse by a solid blow to the chest could be fatal!
Ancient Rome gives us the term naumachia, which refers to a complex where staged naval battles could take place. Rome was an empire that was justifiably proud of its ships, and when it wanted to bring some of that glory home, it would flood an amphitheater and bring in biremes and triremes, the battleships of the day. Then the ships would be crewed with prisoners of war, and an actual naval battle would be fought. In one match, hosted by Julius Caeser, there were more than 6000 participants.
Jamie Adams, writer and athlete, writes for MyAAEWorld, an online store specializing in sports equipment.