Which is the oldest sport in the world?

In the absence of time travel to the past – which, while theoretically possible, remains largely the preserve of science fiction – the oldest sport in the world will always be a matter for conjecture. According to Cambridge Dictionary, ‘sport’ is ‘a game, competition, or activity needing physical effort and skill that is played or done according to rules, for enjoyment and/or as a job’. Thus, while the origins of various modern sports are prehistoric, the details of when they became ‘sports’, in the modern sense, are lost in the mists of time.

For example, the earliest direct evidence of bow and arrow technology dates from the Paleolithic period, 64,000 years ago, but the use of the bow as a hunting weapon, or for warfare, for that matter, is not quite the same as shooting arrows at an inanimate target. However, recreational archery was practised by civilisations of ancient Egypt, which dates from c.4,000 BCE, and ancient Greece, which dates from c.1,200 BCE.

Likewise, one of the earliest depictions of people swimming or, at least, people in a prone position with arms and legs bent, as if swimming, can be found in the so-called ‘Cave of Swimmers’, in southwestern Egypt. The Neolithic rock art is believed to date from c.8,000 years ago, during the African Humid Period, a.k.a. The Green Sahara, when the Sahara Desert was covered with lush vegetation and lakes.

Perhaps the most convincing evidence for the oldest sport(s) in the world, though, can be found in the Grotte de Lascaux, or ‘Lascaux Cave’, in southwestern France. The cave contains numerous paintings dating from the Upper Paleolithic period, c.15,300 years ago, including depictions of sprinters and wrestlers who, whether competing recreationally or professionally, were presumably doing so according to rules of some kind.

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