Sports in the Ancient World

By Stacy Hackner, on 24 January 2017


by Stacy Hackner


I’ve written previously here about the antiquity of running, which was one of the original sports at the ancient Greek Olympics, along with javelin, archery, and jumping. These games started around 776 BC in the town of Olympia. What came before, though? What other evidence do we have of ancient sports?

Running is probably the most ancient sport; it requires no gear (no matter how much shoe companies make you think you need it) and the distances are easily set: to that tree and back, to that mountain and back. Research into the origins of human locomotion focus on changes to the foot, which needed to change from arboreal gripping to bipedal running and bearing the full weight of the body. A fossil foot of Ardipithecus ramidus, a hominin which lived 4.4 million years ago, features a stiffened midfoot and flexible toes capable of being extended to help push off at the end of a stance, but has the short big toe typical of great apes. Australopithecus sediba, which lived only 2 million years ago, had an arched foot like modern humans (at least not the flat-footed ones) but an ankle that turned inwards like apes. Clearly our feet didn’t evolve all the features of bipedal running at once, but rather at various intervals over the past 4-5 millennia. Evidence of ancient humans’ distance running is equally ancient, as I wrote about previously. Researchers Bramble & Lieberman have posed the question “Why would early Homo run long distances when walking is easier, safer and less costly?” They posit that endurance running was key to obtaining the fatty tissue from meat, marrow, and brain necessary to fuel our absurdly large brains – thus linking long-distance running with improved cognition. In a similar vein, research into the neuroscience of running has found that it boosts mood, clarifies thinking, and decreases stress.

Feats of athleticism in ancient times were frequently dedicated to gods. Long before the Greek games, the Egyptians were running races at the sed-festival dedicated to the fertility god Min. A limestone wall block at the Petrie depicts King Senusret (1971 BCE) racing with an oar and hepet-tool. The Olympic Games, too, were originally dedicated to the gods of Olympus, but it appears that as time went on, they became corrupted by emphasizing the individual heroic athletes and even allowed commoners to compete. There were four races in the original Olympics: the stade (192m), 2 stades, 7-24 stades, and 2-4 stades in full hoplite armor. It should be mentioned that serious long-distance running, like the modern marathon, was not a part of the ancient games. The story of Pheidippides running from the battlefield at Marathon to announce the Greek victory in Athens is most likely fictional, although the first modern marathon in 1896 traced that 25-mile route. The modern distance of just over 26 miles was set at the 1908 London Olympics, when the route was lengthened to go past Buckingham Palace.

Limestone wall-block with sunk relief depiction, internally carefully modelled, showing King Senusret I with oar and hepet-tool, running the sed-festival race before the god Min. Now in five pieces rejoined, and some small fragments. Courtesy Petrie Museum.

Limestone wall-block showing King Senusret I running the sed-festival race before the god Min. Courtesy Petrie Museum.

Wrestling might be equally ancient. It’s basically a form of play-fighting with rules (or without rules, depending on the type – compare judo to Greco-Roman to WWF), and play-fighting can be seen not only in human children but in a variety of mammal species. In Olympic wrestling, the goal was to get one’s opponent to the ground without biting or grabbing genitals, but breaking their fingers and dislocating bones were valid. Some archaeologists have tried to attribute Nubian bone shape – the basis of my thesis – on wrestling, for which they were famed. Another limestone relief in the Petrie shows two men wrestling in loincloths. Boxing is a similar fighting contest; original Olympic boxing required two men to fight until one was unconscious. Pankration brutally combined wrestling and boxing, but helpfully forbid eye-gouging. It may be possible to identify ancient boxers bioarchaeologically by examining patterns of nonlethal injuries. Some of these are depressions in the cranial vault (particularly towards the front and the left, presuming mostly right-handed opponents), facial fractures, nasal fractures, traumatic tooth loss, and fractures of the bones of the hand.

Crude limestone group, depicting two men wrestling. Traces of red loin cloth on one, and black on the other. Courtesy Petrie Museum.

Crude limestone group depicting two men wrestling. Traces of red loin cloth on one, and black on the other. Courtesy Petrie Museum.

Spear or javelin throwing has also been attested in antiquity. Although we have evidence of predynastic flint points and dynastic iron spear tips, it’s unclear whether these were used for sport (how far one can throw) or for hunting. Actually, it’s unclear how the two became separate. Hunting was (and continues to be) a major sport – although not one with a clear winner as in racing or wrestling – and the only difference is that in javelin the target isn’t moving (or alive). In the past few years, research has been conducted into the antiquity of spear throwing. One study argues that Neanderthals had asymmetrical upper arm bones – the right was larger due to the muscular activity involved in repeatedly throwing a spear. Another study used electromyography of various activities to reject the spear-thrusting hypothesis, arguing that that the right arm was larger in the specific dimensions more associated with scraping hides. Spear throwing is attested bioarchaeologically in much later periods. A particular pathological pattern called “atlatl elbow”: use of a tool to increase spear velocity caused osteoarthritic degeneration of the elbow, but protected the shoulder.

Fragment of a copper alloy spear head from the Roman period. Courtesy Petrie Museum.

Fragment of a Roman-period copper alloy spear head. Courtesy Petrie Museum.

A final Olympic sport is chariot racing and riding. Horses were probably only domesticated around 5500 years ago in Eurasia, so horse sports are really quite new compared to running and throwing! It’s likely that horses were originally captured and domesticated for meat at least 1000 years before humans realized they could use them for transportation. The Olympic races were 4.5 miles around the track (without saddles or stirrups, as these developments had not yet reached Greece), and the chariot races were 9 miles with either 2 or 4 horses. Bioarchaeologists have noted signs of horseback riding around the ancient world – signs include degenerative changes to the vertebrae and pelvis from bouncing as well as enlargement of the hip socket (acetabulum) and increased contact area between the femur and pelvis from when they rub together. In all cases, more males than females had these changes, indicating that it was more common for men to ride horses.

Of course, there are many more sports that existed in the ancient world – other fighting games including gladiatorial combat, ritualized warfare, and games with balls and sticks (including the Mayan basketball-esque game purportedly played with human skulls). Often games were dedicated to gods, or resulted in the death of the loser(s). However, many of these, explored bioarchaeologically, would result in similar musculoskeletal changes and injury patterns discussed above. Many games have probably been lost to history. Considering the vast span of human activity, it’s likely sports of some kind have always existed, from the earliest foot races to the modern Olympic spectacle.

Stone ball, limestone; from a game. From Naqada Tomb 1503. Courtesy Petrie Museum.

Limestone ball from a game. From Naqada Tomb 1503. Courtesy Petrie Museum.


Bramble, D.M. and Lieberman, D.E. 2004. Endurance running and the evolution of Homo. Nature 432(7015), pp. 345–352.

Carroll, S.C. 1988. Wrestling in Ancient Nubia. Journal of sport history 15(2), pp. 121–137. Available at:

Larsen, C.S. 2015. Bioarchaeology: Interpreting Behavior from the Human Skeleton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lieberman, D.E. 2012. Those feet in ancient times. Nature 483, pp. 550–551.

Martin, D.L. and Frayer, D.W. eds. 1997. Troubled Times: Violence and Warfare in the Past. illustrated. Psychology Press.

Perrottet, T. 2004. The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games. Random House Publishing Group.


Did we evolve to run?

By Stacy Hackner, on 5 January 2015

By Stacy Hackner

A few years ago, spurred by my research on just how deleterious the sedentary lifestyle of a student can be on one’s health, I decided to start running. Slowly at first, then building up longer distances with greater efficiency. A few months ago, I ran a half-marathon. At the end, exhausted and depleted, I wondered: why can we do this? Why do we do this? What makes humans want to run ridiculous distances? A half-marathon isn’t even the start – there are people who do full marathons back-to-back, ultra-marathons of 50 miles or more, and occasionally one amazing individual like Zoe Romano, who surpassed all expectations and ran across the US and then ran the Tour de France.[i] Yes, ran is the correct verb – not cycled.

I’ve met so many people who tell me they can’t run. They’re too ungainly, their bums are wobbly, they’re worried about their knees, they’re too out of shape. Evolution argues otherwise. There are a number of researchers investigating the evolutionary trends for humans to be efficient runners, arguing that we are all biomechanically equipped to run (wobbly bums or not). If you have any question whether you can or can not run, just check out the categories of races in the Paralympic Games. For example, the T-35 athletics classification is for athletes with impairments in ability to control their muscles; in 2012, Iiuri Tsaruk set a world record for the 200m at 25.86s, which is only 6 seconds off Bolt’s world record at 19.19 and 4 seconds off Flo-Jo’s womens record (doping aside). 2012 also saw the world record for an athlete with visual impairment: Assia El Hannouni ran 200m in 24.46.[ii] You try running that fast. Now try running with significant difficulty controlling your limbs or seeing. If you’re impressed, think about these athletes the next time you say you can’t run.


Paralympian Scott Rearden. Wikimedia Commons.

Let’s think about bipedalism for a bit. Which other animals walk on two legs besides us? Birds, for a start, although flight is usually the primary mode of transport for all except penguins and ostriches. On the ground, birds are more likely to hop quickly than to walk or run. Kangaroos also hop. Apes are able to walk bipedally, but normally use their arms as well. Cockroaches and lizards can get some speed over short distances by running on their back legs. However, humans are different as we always walk on two legs, keep the trunk erect rather than bending forward as apes do, keep the entire body relatively still, and use less energy due to stored kinetic energy in the tendons during the gait.[iii] Apparently we can group our species of strange hairless apes into the category “really weird sorts of locomotion” along with kangaroos and ostriches.

Following this logic, Lieberman et al point out that a human could be bested in a fight with a chimp based on pure strength and agility, can easily be outrun by a horse or a cheetah in a 100m race, and have no claws or sharp teeth: “we are weak, slow, and awkward creatures.”[iv] We do have two strokes in our favor, though – enhanced cognitive capabilities and the ability to run really long distances. Our being awkwardly bipedal naked apes actually helps more than one would think. First, bipedalism decouples breathing from stride. Imagine a quadruped running – as the legs come together in a gallop, the back arches and forces the lungs to exhale like a bellows. Since humans are upright, the motion of our legs doesn’t necessarily affect our breathing pattern. Second, we sweat in order to cool down during physical exertion. (In particular, I sweat loads.) Panting is the most effective way for a hairy animal to cool down, as hair or fur traps sweat and doesn’t allow for effective convection (imagine standing in a cool breeze while covered in sweat – this doesn’t work for a dog.) But it’s impossible to pant while running. So not only are humans able to regulate breathing at speed, but we can cool down without stopping for breath.

From a purely skeletal perspective, there is more evidence for the evolution of running. Human heads are stabilized via the nuchal ligament in the neck, which is present only in species that run (and some with particularly large heads), and we have a complex vestibular system that becomes immediately activated to ensure stability while running. The insertion on the calcaneus (heel bone) for the Achilles tendon is long in humans, increasing the spring action of the Achilles.[v] Humans have relatively long legs and a huge gluteus maximus muscle (the source of the wobbly bum). All of these changes are seen in Homo erectus, which evolved 1.9 million years ago.[vi]

H. erectus skeleton with adaptations for running (r) and walking (w). From Lieberman 2010.

H. erectus skeleton with adaptations for running (r) and walking (w). From Lieberman 2010.

The evolutionary explanation for this is the concept of endurance or persistence hunting. In a hot climate, ancient Homo could theoretically run an animal to death by inducing hyperthermia. This is also where we come full circle and bring in the cognitive capabilities of group work. A single individual can’t chase an antelope until it expires from heat stroke because it’ll keep going back into the herd and then the herd will scatter. But a team of persistence hunters can. If persistence hunting is how humans (or other Homo species) evolved to be great at long distance running, that’s also the why humans developed larger brains: the calories in meat generated an excess of calories that allowed nourishment of the great energy-suck that is the brain. However, persistence hunting is a skill that mostly went by the wayside as soon as projectile weapons (arrowheads and spears) were invented, possibly around 300,000 years ago. Why? Because humans, due to our large brains, are very inventive, but also very lazy. Any expenditure of energy must be made up for by calories consumed later, at least in a hunting and gathering environment – so less energy output means less energy input; a metabolic balance. Thus we have the reason why humans can run, but also why we don’t really want to. (As an aside, some groups such as the Kalahari Bushmen practiced persistence hunting until recently, although they had projectile weapon technology, probably because of skill traditions and retaining cultural practices. Humans are always confounding like that.)

Which brings up another point: gathering. As I’ve written before, contemporary hunter-gatherers like the Hadza rely much more on gathering than hunting. Additionally, it is possible that the first meat eaten by Homo species was scavenged rather than hunted. There is no such evolutionary argument as endurance gathering. If ancient humans spent much more time gathering, why would we evolve these particular running mechanisms? As with many queries into human evolution, these questions have yet to be answered. Either way, it’s clear that humans have a unique ability. Your wobbly bum is, in fact, the key to your running. Another remaining question is why we still have the desire to continue running these ridiculous distances – a topic for a future post, perhaps.


[i] http://www.zoegoesrunning.com

[ii] Check out all the records at http://www.paralympic.org/results/historical

[iii] Alexander, RM. Bipedal Animals, and their differences from humans. J Anat, May 2004: 204(5), 321-330.

[iv] Lieberman, DE, Bramble, DM, Raichlen, DA, Shea, JJ. 2009. Brains, Brawn, and the Evolution of Human Endurance Running Capabilities. In The First Humans – Origins and Early Evolution of the Genus Homo (Grine, FE, Fleagle, JG, Leakey, RE, eds.) New York: Springer, pp 77-98.

[v] Raichlen, DA, Armstrong, H, Lieberman, DE. 2011. Calcaneus length determines running economy: implications for endurance running performance in modern humans and Neandertals. J Human Evol 60(3): 299-308.

[vi] Lieberman, DE. 2010. Four Legs Good, Two Legs Fortuitous: Brains, Brawn, and the Evolution of Human Bipedalism. In In the Light of Evolution (Jonathan B Losos, ed.) Greenwood Village, CO: Roberts & Co, pp 55-71.

The Biomechanics of Breasts

By Stacy Hackner, on 24 February 2014

Stacy Hackner_ThumbnailBy Stacy Hackner

Have you ever wondered what biomechanics has ever done for you? Well, if you’re a runner, it can tell you a lot about your gait and efficiency. It tells us why people with long legs are good at running and people with long arms are good at swimming, and the forces they use per stride or stroke. It can teach us proper runner techniques. If you’re a female runner, you may have encountered a problem biomechanical researchers are actively working to solve: bouncing breasts.

I’ve only been a runner since I started my PhD. As you may remember from my last post, I learned from my research that it’s very important for your bone strength to practice weight-bearing activity (sorry, astronauts), which includes running. As professional running goes, for some reason marathon organizers decided to exclude women from participating until the mid 1980s, when just a few women snuck into the Boston and London marathons and achieved quite good times (see Heminsley’s book for an exciting run-down of the sneaking). Since then, women have been participating in most major sports, including (very recently) American football; 36.5% of 2012 London Marathon finishers were female (Brown et al 2013). But sports equipment for women is still catching up, and biomechanics – long applied to gait and stride, torso and head movements – is now being brought in to design a better bra. Most biomechanical studies of breasts involve attaching markers to women on treadmills in clothed and unclothed conditions and filming them with an infrared camera – a slightly awkward study for the volunteers, but it’s worth it for the results.

The breast in three dimensions. Zhou et al 2012.

The breast in three dimensions. Zhou et al 2012.

First, let’s look at a breast from an anatomical perspective. Breasts are composed of milk glands and ducts, fat, connective tissue, and Cooper’s ligaments. The latter are fibers that attach the breast to the underlying fascia and pectoral muscles; throughout life, and in vigorous exercise, they can stretch or break and cause sagging and breast pain. Imagine a laundry line with wet clothes hanging on it – now shake it: that’s what happens during intense exercise. Of course, these forces have been measured, which can be difficult as unlike bones and muscles, they squish and deform, and each of the above types of tissue reacts to running forces differently. During the beginning of a running stride, the breasts are found to accelerate at up to 3 G (where G is the force of gravity – at that point in time, it’s like the breast weighs 3 times as much). This is considerably more than the rest of the trunk, and puts strain on Cooper’s ligaments. You can then imagine that each breast goes through a cycle of acceleration, stasis, and deceleration for each stride, like your head when stopping and starting in a car. For each stride, the breasts move forward into the air and backward into the ribcage, in what is called anterior displacement.

The figure-8 movement of breasts in a digital reconstruction. Image via ShockAbsorber website.

The figure-8 movement of breasts
in a digital reconstruction.
Image via ShockAbsorber website.

Now it gets more serious. In addition to being displaced anteriorly, breasts move in three dimensions. When running, the goal is generally to move forward. In order to do this, you need to move up as well. And with each step, you also sway side to side. Breasts respond to this combination of forces by actually moving in a figure-8, experiencing additional vertical and horizontal displacement. Studies show that it’s these three directions of displacement rather than acceleration that cause breast discomfort and pain; the worst seems to be vertical displacement, which peaks at mid-flight. At this point, the Cooper’s ligaments are basically floating upwards and then being tugged back down during deceleration (not to mention the fat and glands moving about internally). This is important to know for bra design, as many sports bras take the approach of “flattening everything is best” – however, as we’ve now learned, flattening will only reduce anterior displacement! Flattening bras can also cause breast pain, so it’s lose-lose situation.

Now let’s discuss what a bra actually does. The everyday padded bra is an attempt to compromise comfort, sexuality, and stabilization, often emphasizing one to the detriment of the other two. The goal is to hold the breasts in an uplifted position so they appear firm and don’t jiggle around too much while walking or climbing stairs. Sports bras, on the other hand, prioritize stabilization, as they’re to be worn in high-impact activities. Many sports bras take the approach that flatter is better, which as I’ve shown is not quite the case, but they do prevent one kind of displacement. Regular, everyday support bras lift the breasts up, reducing strain on the Cooper’s ligaments, but in tests of treadmill running do little to prevent any kind of displacement. Running bare-chested causes the most displacement, and – in the case of marathons – can lead to a breast injury experienced by men as well, where the nipples chafe against the fabric of the shirt. (This is actually very common, and there are marathoner web forums devoted to sharing prevention tips.) A newer kind of sports bra attempts to encapsulate rather than flatten, and researchers from biomechanics and textile manufacturing have been collaborating on new design. This bra holds each breast separately and matches the figure-8 to the overall movement of the torso, reducing displacement in all three directions.

As more women get into sports (which is particularly important for the prevention of osteoporosis), making us comfortable and keeping us engaged should be a high priority for sports equipment manufacturers. Most runners can find shoes that fit, as shoes have been tested and re-designed for the last thirty years, and have a high profile in the press. Despite the increase in women running, 75% of female London marathoners still reported a problem with their sports bra, with the prevalence higher among larger-breasted women. However, proper fitting technical sports bras receive significantly lower press coverage than proper running shoes. Clearly, there is more work to be done!



Brown, N., J. White, A. Brasher, and J. Scurr. 2013. An investigation into breast support and sports bra use in female runners of the 2012 London Marathon. Journal of Sports Sciences 2013:1-9.

Heminsley, A. 2013. Running Like a Girl. London: Huntchinson.

Scurr, J., J. White, and W. Hedger. 2010. The effect of breast support on the kinematics of the breast during the running gait cycle.  Journal of Sports Sciences 28(10): 1103-1109.

Zhou, J., W. Yu, and S.P. Ng. 2012. Studies of three-dimensional trajectories of breast movement for better bra design. Textile Research Journal 82(3): 242-254.

Update: The post originally stated that Cooper’s ligaments connect breast glands to the clavicle; this was incorrect.