The Soccer Tribe: Implications and Conjectures

by Ray Grigg

The perspective provided by anthropology’s expansive survey of history does much to identify who we are as a species, to explain our behaviour and to anticipate how we might respond to any new situations in which we find ourselves. However, like a child whose understanding reaches only to the extent of its readiness, some of the anthropologist’s insights will neither be incorporated into our thinking nor change our behaviour. This will probably be the case with The Soccer Tribe by Dr. Desmond Morris.

During the hundreds of thousands of years of our existence as hunter-gatherers, Dr. Morris suggests, the return of hunters with killed game would have been a crucially important event greeted with tribal euphoria, a ritual celebration practiced for so long that it would have become a permanent part of our neurological circuitry. Bringing home fresh meat would not only have ensured a supply of food, but a successful kill would have affirmed the viability of the tribe through the bravery and skill of its hunters.

Though the hunt was eventually displaced by the successes of animal husbandry, the celebration of the kill became such an integral part of our collective human psyche that it was replaced by ritual games — interesting that the word is the same for a “game” being played as the “game” that is killed. One of these symbolic re-enactments of the hunt is “ullamaliztli,” a ceremonial ball game played by Aztecs and Maya. Another is lacrosse, played by American Aboriginals. Cricket has its roots in a similar Viking game. Polo is akin to “buzkashi” (also “bugkashi”), an ancient game still played in Afghanistan and Pakistan, in which the headless body of a goat is carried by horsemen toward goals — a version of this game was played nearly 3,000 years ago by Turks and Persians using the heads of defeated generals.

And the ritual continues to be enacted in its modern version as sports. This idea is succinctly explored by Bruce Yaccato in “The Thrill of the Hunt” (National Post, June 19/14). “Our modern-day athletic heroes are merely highly-paid descendants of those primitive hunters way back down the evolutionary scale,” he explains. “Each goal, basket, touchdown or point recreates ‘the kill’. And each kill sets off the same euphoric reaction our ancestors experienced when the hunting party returned carrying life-giving game. We swarm to touch the fallen beast in much the same way as [we do the winner’s trophy].”

When transposed to modern sports, the ritual is the same. The players, Yaccato explains, have become the hunters. The weapons have become the ball or puck. And the prey has become the goal or net. “You may be watching the game,” he writes, “but your Inner Caveman is watching the hunting pack stalk an animal in co-ordinated fashion, culminating in the kill.” The global popularity of soccer, Yaccato suggests, can be attributed to “the wide configuration of the soccer pitch, the relative absence of equipment, and the continuous nature of the play [which] all make the Beautiful Game the most realistic of pseudo-hunts…”. The game returns us to the open savannah of millennia ago, and to our vicarious participation with a band of heroic hunters who are enacting the dangerous strategies that will hopefully culminate in fresh meat for the tribe.

Urbanization, of course, removed us even further from our ancestral hunting culture. So the Romans “decided that if the hunters couldn’t get to the hunt, then the hunt would be brought to the hunters…”. The Coliseum could seat up to 50,000 “fans”, and for hundreds of years, Yaccato writes, they would “flock to the endless slaughter” — noting that 5,000 animals died on the Coliseum’s first day of entertainment. The civilizing forces of modern society have mostly eliminated the blood sports of bearbaiting, cockfights and bullfighting, but the impulse to return to the symbolic fields of killing still exist as professional sports.

As Dr. Morris explains, the roots of sports “lie deep in our primeval past, when our early ancestors lived and died as hunters of wild beasts. Almost the whole of man’s evolutionary history belongs to that hunting period, when the pursuit of prey was not a sport, but a matter of survival. It moulded us and made us, genetically, what we are today. And it changed us dramatically from our nearest relatives, the monkeys and apes. To be good hunters, you have to develop a whole new set of qualities, both physical and mental.”

We, of course, would like to believe we have evolved beyond our role as primitive hunters, and that our civilization no longer requires such “physical and mental” qualities for our survival. Since we still retain those qualities, however, we are now compelled to ponder if they are assets to assist us with our pressing problems or liabilities to distract us from them. In our global world of interconnected complexities, we have enormous political, cultural, economic and environmental challenges that need our urgent attention. The hunter mentality that made us successful in our paleolithic history seems incongruous with our present circumstances; the symbolic pseudo-hunt that is enacted in our tribal sports seems anachronistic in our modern era. Yet the hunter and the hunt are still alive and well within us, complete with vestiges of the Romans and their Coliseum. What this means for our future remains to be discovered.