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The Sciences

Ancient People Had Public Death Matches for Fun, and These Other Pastimes

Our relationship to leisure activities has evolved over the centuries, but you’ll still recognize plenty of these beloved pastimes.

By Cody CottierMar 5, 2024 8:00 AM
Greec helmet in sand
(Credit: aeduard/Getty Images)


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Believe it or not, long before movie theaters and bowling alleys, before Settlers of Catan and Xbox, our ancestors found pleasant ways to pass their idle hours. Then as now, obligations filled only so much of the day — the rest was theirs to do with as they liked.

Leisure time has always been a part of the human experience, but its role has shifted over time, differing between cultures and across hierarchical classes. From singalongs to sports to board games — not to mention the occasional public death match — let's take a tour of the things our ancestors did for fun throughout the ages.

Leisure Time in the Prehistoric Era

Early humans likely didn’t draw a hard line between work and play, as Daniel McLean and Amy Hurd explain in Recreation and Leisure in Modern Society. In less technologically advanced societies, they write, “work tends to be varied and creative, rather than being a narrow, specialized task demanding a sharply defined skill, as in modern industry.” What’s more, it’s often infused with ritual aspects that make it feel less burdensome.

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That said, little is known about the amusements of prehistoric people, since evidence is scarce. (Several 42,000-year-old bone flutes discovered in Germany in 2012 are a notable exception). Still, extrapolating from the activities of hunter-gatherers in the modern era, we can make some educated guesses.

Writing in the late 1970s, the Australian anthropologist W. E. H. Stanner described how the modest material requirements of Aboriginals allowed them to spend ample time “on all the things for which life could be lived when basic needs were met: the joys of leisure, rest, song, dance, fellowship, trade, stylized fighting and the performance of religious rituals.”

In other words, thousands of years ago people probably did a lot of the same things we do today, transposed to their pre-industrial context. Stanner’s list includes, among other things, the primal equivalents of karaoke, clubbing, coffee with friends, shopping at the mall and pickup basketball. Some things never change.

What Were Ancient Athletics Like?

Sports have played an important part in virtually every recorded culture. Ironically, these playful pursuits often had a deep connection to warfare. McClean and Hurd write that ancient peoples not only played sports for pleasure, but also to “keep the body strong and the spirit courageous,” maintaining physical and mental fitness for future combat.

By contrast, in other cases, sports were used explicitly to avert war. For example, many Native Americans played stickball, a lacrosse-like game in which players hurl a ball down a field, to settle disputes between tribes without resorting to violence.

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The tension between fun and fatal may have reached an apex with the ritual ball game known as tlachtli, played by pre-Columbian cultures throughout Mesoamerica like the Maya and Aztec. Similar to racquetball, the game could be played casually by anyone, but some formal contests apparently ended with the ritual sacrifice of the losers. (Not exactly the typical idea of a relaxing Saturday today.)

The Rise of Entertainment Inequality

For decades, anthropologists have hypothesized that the agricultural revolution came with a big trade-off: More food security in return for more labor. Recent research on the Agta, a group of hunter-gatherers in the Philippines, confirms that as these individuals have adopted an agricultural lifestyle, they've had less leisure time as a result.

Nevertheless, as civilization marched on, people still managed to entertain themselves — as well as they could afford to, anyway. As settlements grew and work became more specialized, the resulting social structure enabled an elite minority — chiefs, warriors, priests and their families — to live off the surplus created by others. Thus was born the leisure class, with its extravagant notions of recreation.

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As Assyrian nobles were spearing lions from their chariots for the sheer thrill of it, for example, ordinary people were left to develop their own workaday diversions. Board games seem to have been just as popular many millennia ago, with the oldest gaming pieces dating back to roughly 3,000 B.C.E. in Turkey. Around the same time, chaturanga (the precursor of chess) emerged in India, while the Egyptians invented senet, in which players raced each other to the end of the board, similar to cribbage.

Fun in Classical Antiquity

In the last millennium B.C.E, the ancient Greeks took fun to a new level of sophistication. Their elaborate theatrical productions, featuring professional actors and even a crane to lift gods and heroes above the stage, were “an indispensable element of every urban centre,” according to UNESCO. And with a slave population of somewhere between 20 and 50 percent to handle all the labor, citizens had no shortage of time to attend plays, festivals and other events.

By the Roman era, if not before, the modern work-play distinction was firmly in place. The Latin words for leisure and business are, respectively, otium, and negotium; for ancient Romans, business was literally defined as a lack of leisure, suggesting the bonds of work restrict your freedom to spend your time how you choose.

Still, the idea of "fun" in ancient Rome can seem barbaric by modern standards. For 100 straight days after the Colosseum opened in 80 C.E., tens of thousands of citizens packed into the amphitheater to ogle staged hunts and gladiatorial combat — or, to put it bluntly, the systematic slaughter of animals and men. It was, as John Pearson writes in Arena: The Story of the Colosseum, “quite the longest, most disgusting, organized mass binge in history.”

Of course, they were neither the first nor last to indulge in cruel and vulgar spectacles.(20,000 people showed up for America’s last public execution in 1936). And the Romans had other, less-objectionable avocations. Like the Greeks, they frequented theaters, stadiums, parks, gardens, and bath houses.

So maybe we can overlook their unsavory tendencies — they did give us jacuzzis, after all, and what’s more fun than a hot tub party?

Read More: The History of Swear Words: Where the &%@! Do They Come From?

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