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Games People Played

Games People Played

People have been playing games and sports for thousands of years.  Nearly every ancient culture has had a popular game or participant sport, and often the sports were watched by thousands of spectators.

You have probably heard of the Olympic Games of ancient Greece, and you are familiar with some of the events such as the discus and javelin throw and the running marathon.  The Greeks also held hand-to-hand fight competitions.  Pankration was an event where competitors used boxing, kicking, and wrestling to subdue an opponent.  It was kind of like an ancient version of today’s UFC.

Ancient Greeks also played a game called episkyros where two teams of twelve players each attempted to throw a ball over their opponents’ heads.  The goal of the game was simple: get the ball past a white goal line (known as the skuros) that the opposing team is working to defend.  The Romans adopted the game from the Greeks and called it harpastum.

The ancient Romans had all sorts of games and sporting spectacles.  You may have heard of the gladiators who fought each other to the death as crowds cheered on.  Naumachia was a sport involving naval battles in a water-filled Roman Colosseum, and the Circus Maximus was the site of chariot races.

Ancient sport was not confined to Europe.  In southern Africa, a Zulu slugfest involving combatants striking each other with sticks was called Nguni, and in ancient India, two combatants boxed with clenched fists, kicks, finger strikes, knee strikes and headbutts in a sport called musti-yuddha.  Although the ancient Chinese game of cuju (which literally means "kick the ball with the foot") died out in the 17th century, the idea lives on in modern soccer.

The peoples of the Americas had their share of games and sports, too.  An ancient Aztec game involving a rubber ball which players attempted to shoot through a vertical hoop placed high above a court on opposite walls was called ullamaliztli.  In ancient Mayan culture, the team sport pitz resulted in the captains of the losing team to be decapitated after the game.  Now that’s having some skin in the game!  Mesoamericans also played pelota purépecha, a game similar to field hockey, but with a fiery twist: the sport was played with a ball that was lit on fire.

Speaking of playing with fire, the ancient Hawaiian sport of he’e hölua involved large sleds made of wood and coconut fibers upon which riders would slide down the side of an active volcano face down at 50 m.p.h.

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