Smithsonian American Art Museum

Think Hockey with Spears: 10th Century’s Most Popular Sport Developed by Native Americans


More than 900 years ago, the most popular sport in North America wasn’t football, baseball or even soccer, it was chunkey; a game that was originally played by indigenous people, and particularly by nearly all southeast Indian tribes.

Its popularity sprang out of an area in the United States known as Cahokia, which is today’s East St. Louis.

In an article posted in the Daily Explainer, Cahokia was described as the “ground zero for a sport that eventually spread all across the regions that today we call the United States and Mexico.”

The sport was played between two opponents; one rolled the puck across the ground as the other player threw a spear alongside the puck in an attempt to get the spear as close to the puck as possible.

Centuries years old evidence that was recently collected by scientists and archaeologists showed that variations of the pucks chunkey was played with were also found in Central America.

And the game, which was also associated with indigenous ceremonies, was organized much like how today’s NFL games are played. According to the Explainer, nearly 950 years ago, different cities would play against each other.

The field that the Cahokians played on is located on the site of an ancient Native American city, which was designated as a World Heritage Site and state park in the early 1980s. This field covered at least six miles and included about 120 human-made earthen mounds. Early explorers commented on the incredible mounds, which had similar uses as the Egyptian pyramids, the Explainer said.

From the article:

Like the Egyptian pyramids, the mounds were tombs and places of worship — inside one, archaeologists in the 1960s found the remains of a man who had been buried with thousands of shells in the shape of hawk's wings. Inside and next to his grave, they found dozens of people who had been sacrificed and buried with him. They also found the rotted remains of enormous astronomical observatory nicknamed Woodhenge, because its circle of massive wooden poles tracked the movements of sun and moon the way Stonehenge does.

No sports are currently played on those mounds, but about 30 minutes away from Cahokia (today’s East St. Louis, Illinois), the NFL’s St. Louis Rams are playing one of America’s most popular pastimes.

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