The Primal Game

Basketball Cat - Courtesy of KaCey97007 Flikr

Basketball Cat – Courtesy of KaCey97007 Flikr

In the late ‘90’s I adopted a black cat. I was living in Orlando Florida at the time, so I named the cat Magic, after the city’s basketball team, the Orlando Magic. Magic’s previous owner had died in a shootout with police at his home, which was sufficiently close to the stadium that a Magic game was delayed by the incident for security reasons. Yeah, there’s a lot more to that story but that’s not what this post is about.

Magic came to me by a friend of a friend, who rescued him from detainment at a local animal shelter. He was really an affectionate cat, for all the trauma he’d been through. One thing he really loved to do was bat toys around on the floor. He would do this for hours and sometimes even played fetch.  What he loved most were wadded up balls of notebook paper.

Most everyone knows that cats love to chase string, but I learned from Magic that most anything that simulates the motions of a small animal will excite a cat into play. Plastic collars from gallon milk jugs, rubber bands, straws, tasselled bookmarks, ballpoint pens, the list is long. I found that certain characteristics apply to all of these toys: the object must be of a certain size, either round or elongated in shape, and have an abrupt and rapid motion up and down or back and forth, or else skate along a smooth floor. These toys resemble mice, small insects, or lizards, which every cat owner knows will spur a cat into action, but Magic’s fascination with wadded paper balls led me to notice something else.

Even though he was named after a basketball team, his play with paper balls shared many striking similarities to soccer or hockey from the manner in which he batted the balls along the floor. he would move it back and forth from one paw to the other, moving forward, towards some particular end of the room. I also realized, after retrieving dozens of paper balls from under the furniture, that Magic’s main aim was to score goals. After batting the ball around for a while he socked it under the couch or into anything cylindrical on the floor, like a paper bag or a trash can. Once he made the goal, he lost all interest, although sometimes he would cram a foreleg, all the way up to his shoulder, under the furniture as though trying to retrieve the prize. I soon learned, though, from retrieving it for him many times, that he didn’t really want it. Fishing for it so awkwardly was for him part of the game, the challenge.

Now why would a cat enjoy playing hockey? If he was pretending to chase a mouse, wouldn’t he want to catch it instead of batting it into a hole? After observing him for a long time, I reached the conclusion that he had some instinctual urge not only to chase the “mouse,” but to let it get to a burrow so he could try to fish it out. It seemed to be a two-part scheme to learning to hunt. Chase and fish; a good hunter of small critters would have to be good and cunning at both.

History of the Ballgame

The Mesoamerican Ballgame - courtesy of Wikipedia

The Mesoamerican Ballgame – courtesy of Wikipedia

People have been batting balls around in this fashion for as long as anyone can guess. The Romans played a popular form of ball for 800 years. Ballgames were played in India and China, the latter at least by 500 BC. The Greeks were known to be playing ball in 2000 BC.   Artifacts from Egyptian tombs dating back to 2500 BC prove they played a form of football; drawings from 3000 BC show them engaged in some sort of handball. By far the oldest record, however, is from Mesoamerica, where a ritual ballgame was being played as early as 3500 BC, or 5,500 years ago. Most likely, we have been playing with balls for as long as we have been around.

Although many varieties of ballgames exist, certain rules are common. People prefer to play in groups, and besides the aim to score a goal by pushing a ball into a hole of some sort, whoever is in possession of the ball becomes the representative of the ball itself, that is, the prey, who alone can be attacked. Also important is for the ball to be in play as much as possible; “holding” or “travelling” is considered a foul. This encourages another behavior, that of passing the ball, which builds teamwork and makes the whole game more enjoyable and exciting.

The whole game seems an obvious representation of a pack of young predators chasing small game, which jumps back and forth among its attackers until it finds refuge in its burrow. This instinct in us must run very deep, to be sure.

The Archaeology of Hunting

Around 2 million years ago hominids (our very very remote ancestors) were using crude stone tools that were nothing more than cobbles of stones with a few edges knocked off to create a few sharp edges.  These tools were used for chopping and pounding – essentially processing tools, which implies these hominids (Homo habilis)  were scavengers and foragers.  The “Man the Hunter” theory of the 1960’s has slowly eroded over the past half century with findings like these. More and more evidence points to our ancestors not as hunters of large game, but smallish geeky sorts who preferred to steal morsels from the kills of big carnivores, and whose primary diet was vegetarian, similar to our closest living relatives today, the great apes. When these hominids did hunt, they preferred small critters they could bring down with say, a slingshot or a snare. Rabbits and squirrels, not buffalo and mammoth, were the main meat items back then, and in the earliest of times, we hunted them strictly by chasing them straight to the burrow (This point of view is supported by Lewis Binford). Times have changed, but our instincts remain, and it’s worth thinking about the next time you go to the ballgame to watch your favorite team play.

Hunting for Rabbit - courtesy of

Hunting for Rabbit – courtesy of


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