Hunting and the Origins of Sport

Sam Woolfe
9 min readMay 6, 2024

Why are humans obsessed with sport? A common explanation is that we are tribal creatures, and so because sport involves teams, we are naturally drawn towards this form of competition. One’s team becomes part of one’s identity, and one’s emotions become intensely invested in the team’s success.

Of course, sports also display a level of skill and ability that is rarely seen — we cannot help but be impressed with that kind of dexterity, speed, strength, agility, and coordination. But there is a deeper question at play here: Why are we so attracted to these displays? The answer — as with many other cultural and behavioural traits that repeat across time and space — is an evolutionary one.

More specifically, we have an evolutionarily driven predilection for sport because it impresses upon us a level of skill that, for ancestral humans, would have been useful for hunting. This is not to say that footballers, cricketers, baseball players, and basketball players are engaging in an activity that looks like hunting, but these activities involve abilities that could be useful in the context of our hunter-gatherer days. The speed of athletes would be an obvious one (i.e. the ability to chase animals for long periods of time), but others include aim and precision (crucial to essentially every sport), eye-hand coordination, whole body coordination, strength, flexibility, and endurance. Some sports also resemble something more akin to hunting practice, such as the javelin throw, the discus throw, and archery.

Additionally, sports fans become so passionate about teams (and this brings us back to tribalism) because of their impressive displays of teamwork, which again was crucial to a successful hunt in an ancestral environment. Our attraction to sport, therefore, derives from the evolved tendency to be attracted to, and impressed by, hunting ability. This does not, however, mean that all humans have a prediction for actual displays of hunting. As we evolved, so too have our values. For this reason, the general public tends to be opposed to trophy hunting, while fewer (but still a significant number, sometimes a majority, depending on the country) are against hunting more generally as a form of sport.

Michael P. Lombardo examines evolutionary perspectives on sport in a 2012 paper published in Evolutionary Psychology. He writes in the abstract:

Sports have received little attention from evolutionary biologists. I argue that sport began as a way for men to develop the skills needed in primitive hunting and warfare, then developed to act primarily as a lek where athletes display and male spectators evaluate the qualities of potential allies and rivals. This hypothesis predicts that (1) the most popular modern male sports require the skills needed for success in male-male physical competition and primitive hunting and warfare; (2) champion male athletes obtain high status and thereby reproductive opportunities in ways that parallel those gained by successful primitive hunters and warriors; (3) men pay closer attention than do women to male sports so they can evaluate potential allies and rivals; and (4) male sports became culturally more important when opportunities to evaluate potential allies and rivals declined as both the survival importance of hunting and the proportion of men who experience combat decreased.

The author focuses on male sport, which he does for several reasons. He states, “First, despite the recent rapid increase in participation by women sport remains primarily a male endeavor.” Since 2012, when Lombardo was writing, participation in women’s sports, and our appreciation of such sports, has grown even further. However, it remains true that the most watched sport is male support, and most fans of sport are men. Lombardo adds:

Second, athletic success is primarily determined by physical prowess. Men typically outperform women in sports, especially those that require skills also useful in male-male physical competition and primitive hunting and warfare, because men, on average, are more aggressive, larger, faster, and stronger than women.

The last reason he offers is that “men more often than women use direct physical competition (e.g., fighting) to achieve status and access to resources and reproductive opportunities.” The last two reasons — regarding physical prowess and competition — are seen as consistent with:

the hypotheses that the reproductive success of ancestral men was likely correlated with their success in intrasexual contests and that the selection pressures for physical traits that increase the chances of success in direct physical competition have been stronger on men than on women.

Lombardo also draws attention to certain biological differences between males and females for support: “That female athletes, including professionals, are more likely to suffer athletic injuries, especially those associated with the mechanical stresses associated with running and jumping, is consistent with this hypothesis.” We see this in football, where female players are eight times more likely to suffer an ACL injury than their male counterparts.

We should keep in mind that in ancestral hunter-gatherer societies, and in existing ones today, the traditional role of hunter has — understandably, due to differences highlighted by Lombardo — fallen on men. Yet hunting in one’s tribe is not a competitive activity; it depends on cooperation. Nonetheless, within one’s tribe, one is still competing for reproductive success, so displays of prowess still had an effect on this. Gaining a certain reputation and level of status in one’s tribe, which would be correlated to desirable physical traits, would improve the chances of reproductive success. The kind of men adept at hunting would be the most likely to survive long enough to reproduce, and they would be the ones most able to acquire resources for offspring. The high status achieved through hunting would also increase the chances of deference from group members and alliance formation.

Lombardo notes that most thought about the origins and functions of sport have been cultural in nature, which can fall into different kinds of categories: non-utilitarian, cultic, ritualistic, Marxist, and cathartic. He writes that, from a cultural point of view, sport can be seen as “a ritual sacrifice of energy by those with the greatest amount of energy to sacrifice”. But he adds:

Despite their potential relevance to a biological evolutionary theory of sport, cultural hypotheses are incomplete because they tend to focus on its proximate causes and thus often fail to evaluate the effects of sports on the survival and reproductive success of athletes and spectators. In doing so, they discount the possible roles of natural and sexual selection in shaping the evolution of sport. This failure hinders our ability to develop a comprehensive understanding of the role of sport in human nature because it neglects its ultimate causes.

(In evolutionary theory, a proximate explanation is concerned with how a behaviour works, whereas an ultimate explanation is concerned with why that behaviour exists in the first place.) Lombardo addresses the role of hunting in humans’ participation in, and enjoyment of, sports. He states:

Despite their different foci, cultural hypotheses about the functions of sport conclude that sport likely had its origins as a way for men to develop and practice hunting skills. The relationship between hunting and sports that include chasing, hitting targets with projectiles, and stalking is obvious.

Men have traditionally encouraged boys to play sports, and this can in many ways be seen as harking back to fathers teaching sons, or men teaching boys more generally, how to hunt. The evolved tendency to value developing and practising hunting skills could also help explain other human behaviours that are not strictly sport but are forms of play (since no competition or teams are involved). One example would include playing catch (perhaps this explains the value of a father playing catch with a son, as it might have some resonance with the ancestral experience of a father teaching a son how to hunt). Throwing a frisbee or chucking stones would be some other examples.

The evolutionary psychologist William von Hippel has discussed the importance of throwing ability in human survival. As predators, humans are unique because, in our evolutionary past, our survival depended on throwing projectiles to wound or kill prey or rivals. However, hunting is not the only underlying factor that explains the human predilection for sport. Warfare and rivalry in our ancestral past is another one. Furthermore, Lombardo critiques references to hunting and warfare as forms of ultimate explanation:

While the connections between sports, hunting, and warfare seem clear, there are a few discrepancies. A satisfactory theory of sport should explain (1) why the cultural importance of sport increased at the same time the need for men to use sport to train for hunting and warfare decreased, (2) why men pay such close attention to athletic contests, and (3) the diversification of sports.

Around 10,000 years ago, when agriculture first emerged, hunting became a less important source of food. This way of obtaining food also involves a different set of skills than what is required for a successful hunt, so it needs to be explained why the cultural importance of sport not only persisted but grew after this time. The hypotheses that Lombardo lays out in the paper’s abstract can help to give a more complete picture of why sport evolved.

Nonetheless, his arguments do not discount the important role that hunting had in the evolution of sport. Moreover, we should keep in mind that culture is often connected to biology. The fact that the cultural importance of sport increased when the need to use sport to train for hunting and warfare decreased does not mean that hunting is no longer a relevant factor. It could be that reduced hunting and warfare actually help to explain the increase in the cultural importance of sport. We still have brains evolved for hunting. If the practice of hunting declined, there may still be a part of us that craves something like it, such as sport or video games.

Again, the existence of hunting in our evolutionary past does not fully explain the proliferation and diversity of sports (as well as video games, for that matter). Sports and video games have cultural components, and a level of fun and sociability, that go beyond considerations of survival, sexual selection, and reproduction. For Lombardo, the rising popularity of sport, in step with hunting’s decline, is not to do with the fact that we still had hunting-oriented tendencies that wanted expression in some way. He claims that:

sport increased in cultural importance, and the status of champion athletes increased, when the opportunities for men to evaluate the qualities of potential allies and rivals during hunting and warfare declined as the role of hunting and the proportion of men in a population who participated in warfare decreased.

Other hypotheses about the evolutionary origin of sport include sport originating as a form of play, as well as those suggested by Lombardo. With respect to rough-and-tumble play, Lombardo observes that this can act as practice for fighting and hunting, although it also “allows juveniles to assess the physical strength and skills of others”, which means it “can function as a means to develop and maintain leadership and dominance within groups.” Lombardo hypothesises that “from its beginnings in play and then training for fighting, hunting, and warfare, sport evolved to provide men with arenas for intrasexual competition and a way to evaluate potential allies and rivals.”

Regarding the relative influence of hunting in the evolution of sport, Lombardo argues:

The need for men to evaluate the fighting ability and warrior potential, rather than hunting ability, of other men may have been the most important selection pressure shaping the evolution of sport because the immediate costs of fighting a superior competitor or allying with an inferior warrior (e.g., death) are far greater than the costs of allying with an inferior hunter (e.g., loss of a meal).

On the other hand, we still find instances of hunting-esque behaviour in people, whether it be in the form of play or sport. There is play hunting in a range of societies, which boys are more likely to engage in, and some of the physical and social skills that you learn during physical games and team sports would be necessary for cooperative hunting. Despite this, the fact that men, on average, outperform women in tasks that involve aiming, catching, and throwing projectiles does not mean hunting is the reason why. Lombardo states, “Male-male competition and warfare, rather than hunting, were likely the selection pressures resulting in superior male skill at intercepting projectiles.”

Other sports are more clearly rooted in warfare, rather than hunting, namely combat sports. Rugby, American football, and lacrosse are other examples of sports that teach skills needed for success in warfare. Nevertheless, hunting is not disconnected from warfare. The former has long been seen as a form of training for the latter. Those adept at cooperative hunting will be more successful in warfare than those who lack hunting skills.

The relationship between hunting and the origin (and continued popularity) of sport is therefore complicated. Yet what emerges from the evolutionary perspective is how our distant past informs our present concerns. We often think of sport (if we reflect on it at all) in cultural terms, such as in terms of tribalism. However, the ubiquity of sport — as something humans enjoy participating in and spectating — has a much deeper and more nuanced explanation than just wanting to see one’s chosen team beat another. Sport expresses many other aspects of our humanness.

Originally published at on May 6, 2024.



Sam Woolfe

I'm a freelance writer, blogger, and author with interests in philosophy, ethics, psychology, and mental health. Website: