February 24, 2018

Curling, the egalitarian sport from hunter-gatherers of Northern Europe

Usually I find the Winter (and Summer) Olympics boring like most other sports, but over the past week curling has caught my attention. It seems more grounded in and derived from real-life activities, rather than sports whose goals are made up for their own sake (like baseball), while also being more complex and strategic than other naturalistic sports (like running and jumping).

It's like a team of hunters trying to take down a large prey. They're launching a projectile toward a stationary target, planning it out, acting slowly and from afar at first to get the element of surprise, then working more frantically and calling to each other to coordinate the hit when they're closer to the target. Sometimes they've got a clear open shot, other times there are environmental obstacles in the way that they have to either remove or go around.

After landing enough direct hits, they've brought down the target -- or they fail to land enough hits, have no more arrows left in their quiver, and feel disappointed at having to let such a large target escape.

It's not like other games where someone sends a projectile toward a target, since those tend to be individual efforts (like archery), or team efforts that involve a hierarchy, division of labor, and a central leader (like football). Those clearly derive from warfare -- especially when there are antagonistic teams facing off -- rather than a smaller-scale activity like a hunting party tracking and pursuing a large game animal.

The egalitarian nature of hunting is reflected in the other behaviors and conduct of the participants. Hunter-gatherers tend to be self-effacing rather than braggadocious, plain-looking rather than gaudy, and sacrificing for the team rather than self-centered. These traits are also found in large-scale agriculturalists, but farm hands tend to be more isolated despite being in close proximity to the other hands, more like an insect hive. Hunter-gatherers work directly and intimately with their teammates while up against a large animal, and have a more happy-go-lucky social attitude than the joyless drone attitude of farm hands.

So, too, in curling do we see the emphasis on good sportsmanship, not bragging or showing off, not pouting or raging when you mess up, congratulating the rival hunting party when they win, and conceding when there's no point in continuing (as though the prey had already gotten away, and you don't want to waste any more arrows shooting at nothing). The gold medalists from Team USA could not look and act any more like drab dads than the gaudy cads we see in other sports.

There's also a strong sense of honesty and not making the game so zero-sum against the other team. In warfare, it's either kill or be killed, and war-derived sports could not suffer any more from the lack of honesty and fair play. That's why the referees must always be present. And even then, there's still the incentive to cheat -- anything to keep from being the side that gets killed -- as with the endless fake injuries in soccer, or fake fouls in basketball.

In hunter-gatherer societies, the only other rival hunting party you might run into would still be from the local area, and would not be in such direct competition with you -- at least for very large game. When a party takes down an elephant, there is simply too much meat for only a few people to eat -- it feeds the entire band for awhile.

If it were a neighboring band who took down the mastodon, they would have more than enough left over to feed your own band as well. And vice versa if your band took down the mastodon, and the neighboring band looked hungry. Sharing when you've enjoyed good luck is risk management for hunter-gatherers, assuming other bands will reciprocate. Another reason for the teams to treat each other graciously as fellows rather than as hostile enemies.

The roots of curling in hunting also explain which groups of people do the best at it. In most of the world, hunter-gatherers were driven extinct by large-scale farmers, small-scale gardeners, or livestock herders -- all of which activities support a far larger population size than hunting and gathering, allowing them to overwhelm the hunters in number and take over the desirable land. That's why most of the world has no interest in the sport, let alone the knack to excel at it after practicing long enough.

One of the few places where there's still a good chunk of hunter-gatherer DNA is the northernmost latitudes of Europe, especially in Scandinavia but also around the North Sea like Scotland. The British Isles have a strong imprint of pastoralist culture and genes, too, because of the Celtic invaders from the mainland of Europe thousands of years ago.

But if you're looking for genetic signatures of the aboriginal hunter-gatherers of Europe, before the early farmers from the Near East began colonizing it, it's in the remote northern areas like Scotland and Sweden. You don't find it much among Slavs, who are a quite recent expansion from Southeastern Europe.

An earlier post touched on some aspects of these hunter-gatherer Europeans having a more egalitarian and trusting culture, which can get taken advantage of by groups who are not descended from hunter-gatherers and have a more zero-sum mindset and behavior toward out-groups.

Sure enough, curling was born in rural Scotland (where Great Britain's Olympic teams are from). From there it spread to Canada and America with settlers from northern Britain. And it's spread to the Scandinavians who also instantly click with egalitarian team sports. No surprise to find out that the winning American men's team is from northern Minnesota, with one teammate hailing from neighboring Wisconsin. Their surnames all point to Germanic or British roots.

Oddly for a cold-weather sport, Slavs are nowhere to be found, either within Europe or among Canadians and Americans. But that follows from them not being descended much from the ancestral hunter-gatherers of Europe (they began as roving pastoralists in SE Europe, then either settled into large-scale farming in the fertile Great European Plain, or remained pastoralists in the hardy climate of the Balkan Mountains). Russia might do better if they searched Siberia for descendants of NE Asian hunters.

Also oddly for such a northern population, on the medal podium for men's curling, hardly any of the athletes had blond hair. No one from Switzerland, no one from the Upper Midwestern US, and just two of the five Swedes. Only one blond on Team Denmark. The women's teams have plenty of blondes, though, so who knows what to make of it. For what it's worth, the ancestral hunter-gatherers were darker colored than the later blond-haired and light-skinned invaders of the north.

There's suddenly a bunch of speculation that the gold medal for America is going to cause the sport's popularity to explode here, but I doubt it'll get far outside of people descended from the North Sea lands. Even our Scots tend to be the more rambunctious and attention-seeking pastoralist type (like Trump), and not so much the severe self-effacing Calvinists who stayed back in Scotland.

Still, it'll at least garner more of an audience, since our founding stock does have a good chunk of that hunter-gatherer DNA, and we would be happy to finally discover sports that offer something other than ritualized warfare. There's still some form of aggression, and throwing projectiles to strike targets. But it feels like there's more of a practical point to it, aside from group A trying to exterminate group B.


  1. I see hunter-gatherers as "nice" versions of pastoralists. They are r-selected, with short time horizons, but more kind and nurturing. When you combine poor imagination(can't foresee consequences), with a generous nature, what you get is a personality that is indeed very naive and taken advantage of.

    Probably have a high level of athletic ability, but poor critical thinking ability(hence, being more egalitarian and naive) and can't stand up to pressure too well. Hunter-gatherers do experience violence, but its not malicious or organized; more like two guys get in an argument with each other and come to blows.

  2. Jon Niednagel claims that strong gross motor skills correlates with a kindly, generous personality. Hunter-gatherers would certainly need superior gross motor skills, when sprinting after prey and throwing spears. Whether the two traits were "selected" together, or, as Niednagel suggests, are the result of intelligent design.


You MUST enter a nickname with the "Name/URL" option if you're not signed in. We can't follow who is saying what if everyone is "Anonymous."