research suggests that the motivation to engage in team sports may have
evolved because it improved the coordination and motor skills used in
warfare. The study was published in the journal Human
study the evolution of teaching and learning in humans — i.e., the
skills and knowledge that ancestral humans had to acquire in order to
make a living, and how they acquired these skill and knowledge sets. I
do this by extrapolating from historically documented
hunting-and-gathering peoples,” explained study author Michelle Scalise
Sugiyama of the University of Oregon.
both ancient and modern hunter-gatherer groups there were no schools,
books, films, or internet for people to learn from. Knowledge was
acquired by observing and listening to others, and by experimenting on
one’s own. This is where play comes in: play is widely regarded as an
adaptation that develops skills that organisms need later in their
example, chase play is believed to develop skills that are useful for
evading predators, such as stamina, speed, and dodging. Similarly,
dyadic play fighting is believed to develop skills used in actual
one-on-one fighting (e.g., in mating or dominance competition). This led
me to ask the question: if dyadic play fighting develops skills used in
one-on-one fighting, what skills does coalitional play fighting develop?
More generally, why would animals play fight in teams?”
Sugiyama and her colleagues analyzed the early ethnographic records of
societies described as hunter-gatherers in Murdock’s Ethnographic Atlas.
They looked for evidence of coalitional play fighting in 47
hunter-gatherer cultures from North America, 23 from South America, 12
from East Eurasia, 11 from the Insular Pacific, and 7 from Africa.
researchers found information on team contact games for 46 of the 100
lack of data for 54 of the 100 culture regions does not mean that
coalitional play fighting was absent in hunter-gatherers in these
regions,” Scalise Sugiyama explained. “Rather, it means that we found
either no information on play or no information on team play for these
regions. It is impossible to tell whether this lack of information is
due to the behavior not being present or due to its not having been
recorded by early ethnographers.”
physical skills used in the games mirrored those used by
hunter-gatherers when raiding. They included activities such as running,
striking, parrying, grappling, and/or throwing objects. Mock warfare was
also found in 39 percent of the cultures and boys’ mock warfare in 26
changes in gender norms over the past few decades, participation and
spectatorship in team contact sports is overwhelmingly male. Our study
offers a possible explanation for this phenomenon: team contact sports
may build motor and cognitive skills used in lethal raiding, which is
also a primarily male activity,” Scalise Sugiyama told PsyPost.
have long noted that team contact sports are similar to warfare, but no
one had ever pinpointed exactly what the similarity is, and no one had
ever tested this claim. When you compare these games to modern warfare
(with its use of long-range and automatic firearms and explosive
devices), the similarities to combat are hard to see.”
given that some team contact sports are known to date back hundreds or
even thousands of years, it was clear to us that the place to look for
similarities was ancient warfare, which largely took the form of lethal
raiding,” Scalise Sugiyama explained.
team play fighting is a form of motor play, we reasoned that these
similarities would be found in the motor patterns used in each of these
activities. That’s exactly what we found: lethal raiding and team play
fighting recruit similar motor patterns under a similar set of
constraints — namely, the use of coordinated action by one group to
attain, and prevent an opposing group from attaining, a predetermined
research shouldn’t be misunderstood as suggesting that playing evolved
just as an aid to raiding.
is important to note what we aren’t arguing here: we aren’t claiming
that the motor patterns we tested for evolved specifically for warfare.
Running, throwing, dodging, etc. are important in other arenas of
hunter-gatherer life, such as hunting and predator evasion, and almost
certainly existed before the emergence of lethal raiding,” Scalise
adaptation we are positing is psychological: it consists of (1) an
emotional system that motivates engagement in play activity that (2)
recruits certain offensive and defensive motor patterns (3) in the
deployment of coordinated coalitional action against an opposing
is also unclear why there is no evidence that other animals — such as
chimpanzees or wolves — engage in coalitional play fighting.
the best of my knowledge, our study is the first to identify and
describe coalitional play fighting. Dyadic play fighting has been
documented in a wide range of species, including humans, but we found
that no one had distinguished between dyadic play fighting and team play
fighting,” Scalise Sugiyama said.
distinction is important because, unlike dyadic play fighting,
coalitional play fighting requires coordinating one’s actions so that
they mesh with those of one’s teammates while at the same time thwarting
the coordinated actions of an opposing coalition.”
play fighting does not require that an individual track, anticipate,
assist, or impede the goals and actions of multiple human agents in two
opposed groups simultaneously. Coalitional play fighting is thus more
computationally complex and demanding than dyadic play fighting.”
Play Fighting and the Evolution of Coalitional Intergroup Aggression“,
was authored by Michelle Scalise Sugiyama, Marcela Mendoza, Frances
White, and Lawrence Sugiyama.