According to South African folklore, too much noise kills baboons—primates that proliferate in the region and occasionally cause nuisance to farmers. Some believe this is the reason the vuvuzela, called lepatata in the South African Tswana language, is blown during football matches in South Africa. It is a gesture seeped in symbols: Supporters blow vuvuzelas frantically in an attempt to “kill off" their opponents.

Ethnic flavours: (from top) New Zealand’s national rugby team, All Blacks, performs the Haka, a Maori war dance that has become an iconic pre-game ritual today (Martyn Hayhow/AFP); cheerleaders have a distinctly primal role in modern sports—the erotic motivation of male participants; in Spain and Latin America (Doug Benc/Getty Images/AFP); the bullfight continues to reinforce the dominant concept of machismo (Pedro Armestre/AFP); and the Mexican lucha libre style of wrestling uses ‘sacred’ masks, more ritualistic than performative. (MEXSPORT/AFP)

This stadium horn is no lone ringer of primeval customs. British zoologist Desmond Morris, most famous for his book The Naked Ape that stripped bare the behaviour of primates, traces the roots of sports such as football to the activities of our evolutionary ancestors.

In his 1981 book, The Soccer Tribe, Morris starts off by describing the “survival hunters", who relied on the chase and kill to stay alive. When hunting for food was no longer necessary for survival, men became “sports hunters", keeping alive the thrill of the chase. The third stage of development was marked by the creation of “arena blood-sportsmen" who brought the hunting activities of the countryside to the centre of cities: Spanish bullfighting and Balinese cockfights for instance. These were finally replaced in relatively recent times by the “arena ball-sportsmen", who adapted the rules and rituals of blood sports to create more socially acceptable games.

Games such as football stand in for this ultimate ritualization of tribal hunting, removing death altogether but retaining the use of cooperative skills which once ensured our survival as a species.

In another book called Tribes (1988), a book Morris has co-authored with Peter Marsh, a social psychologist, the pair explains that though modern sports are largely obscured by technology and the interests of large commercial institutions, the true function of sport is still largely manifest in the nature of the games.

Most sports involve skills that were once essential for survival within hunting communities: strength, stamina, agility, territorial defence and accurate aim. These skills are no longer essential in contemporary societies but they have filtered down to the sports we engage in today. Strength and stamina are essential for blocking or tackling rival players; agility, when running with or for the ball; territorial defence while goalkeeping; and accuracy of aim when making passes or making a goal. More importantly, these skills are of no value without coordination with other players. Strong bonds between teammates are essential for a win, just as strong bonds between tribesmen were essential for group hunting.

There is also the ritual of sport: the symbolism and protocol. The rites of collegiate American football can be interpreted as a masculine rite of passage involving a yearly ceremonial cycle, the isolation of novices from females, and a special diet in which certain foods (such as potato) are taboo.

Even beyond the games themselves, sports embrace several components of tribal culture: repetition, regularity, emotionality, drama and symbolism. In her research on the history of sports, American anthropologist Alyce Cheska draws attention to how sports seasons have replaced harvesting seasons in segmenting the year. While ungentlemanly behaviour resulted in the ousting of a tribe member, on the field it results in fouls.

Barring a few sports, such as climbing, there is always a winner—an individual or a team.

In football, the two teams are not trying to destroy each other, they are trying to get past each other to make a goal, a symbolic killing.

With modern societies marked by mechanism, sports offer deliberately sought-after emotional risks. They bring about ritual activity and heighten bonds between people; they evoke a sense of belonging.

Why shouldn’t the vuvuzela be blown?


(Translation in italics)

Ka mate, Ka mate!

It is death, It is death

Ka ora, Ka ora!

It is life, It is life

Ka mate, Ka mate!

It is death, It is death

Ka ora, Ka ora!

It is life, It is life

Tenei te tangata puhuruhuru

This is the man above me

Nana i tiki mai whakawhiti te ra!

Who enabled me to live

A hupane, kaupane

As I climb up step by step

A hupane, kaupane whiti te ra!

Towards sunlight

Translation from All Blacks’ website