Swimming hasn’t always been all about gold medals, six-pack abs and world records.
Humans have been swimming for thousands of years! From pearl diving to fishing to warfare, swimming was essential for ancient people around the world.
How did swimming transition from a survival skill to one of the most popular sports and leisure activities in the world?
Hop in our time machine and let’s find out.
Early Evidence of Swimming
Long before Michael Phelps dominated the pool, humans were swimming.
Some of the earliest evidence of swimming comes from the Cave of Swimmers in Egypt. 10,000-year-old rock art in this cave shows humans mid-stroke, along with images of a giraffe and a hippopotamus.
There’s also another tomb in Egypt that depicts swimming – it’s from 2,000 BC!
Swimming started showing up in written records around 2,000 BC as well. You’ll find mentions of swimming in the Iliad and the Odyssey, The Epic of Gilgamesh, Beowulf and many more.
Various stone carvings from Babylon and Assyria also show people doing a form of modern-day breaststroke.
The Japanese are credited with holding some of the first swimming races, as early as 36 B.C.!
In ancient Greece and Rome, swimming was part of military training and was eventually also included in elementary education for young boys. Plato once said that failing to know either letters or swimming was a sure sign of ignorance.
The Romans are known for their elaborate bathhouses, but they also built larger swimming pools for leisure, too. The first known heated swimming pool was built in Rome in the first century BC.
And the iconic emperor Julius Caesar was known for being a good swimmer. He famously escaped from a battle in Alexandria by diving into the water and swimming away from his attackers.
Swimming in North & South America
Across the Atlantic, numerous indigenous tribes in North and South America were strong swimmers, too.
There’s extensive evidence from around 300 BC showing that the Mayans were skilled fishermen. The famous El Mirador Swimming Panels show Mayan heroes swimming among gods and monsters.
Conquistadors exploring South America also reported that the Aztec people were excellent swimmers. Bernal Cortez said they could “swim as easily as they walk on land.”
Native Americans who lived close to large bodies of water also took part in swimming (more on that later).
As time went on, swimming remained an important part of life for humans everywhere.
The Bajau People
Various peoples throughout the Pacific have been teaching their children to swim before they could walk. Probably the most famous are the Bajau people in Southeast Asia.
These nomadic people have lived on the water for 1,000 years, and have genetically adapted to a life of intense swimming.
They’re extremely skilled at spearfishing – some of the best Bajau fishermen will spend up to five hours a day underwater! They can hold their breaths for up to 13 minutes, diving 200 feet deep without using fins!
The Bajau people probably wouldn’t be such good swimmers if it weren’t necessary – they needed to dive deep to catch fish and gather food to support their families.
Other countries in Asia understood the importance of swimming as well. In the 17th century, the Japanese emperor decreed that swimming was to be required in schools.
Swimming in Africa
Early Africans who lived near the water were very strong swimmers, talented fishermen and good sailors. But the slave trade brought with it many horrors, including a new wariness around water for many Africans.
While some Africans escaped their captors by jumping off of ships and swimming to safety, others began to fear the water because it represented kidnapping and danger.
In the 17th century it was estimated that about 80% of enslaved Africans in the United States could swim, compared to just 20% of white people. Over time, this ratio tipped into the white man’s favor, as many slave owners chose to ban swimming among slaves.
There are so many other cultures that have enjoyed swimming throughout history, it’s impossible to get into all of them here. Just know that humans have been swimming for a LONG time.
The Rise of Competitive Swimming
But it wasn’t until the 1800s when the sport really took off in a more formal, competitive setting.
By 1837, the National Swimming Society was hosting regular swimming competitions in six pools around London. Most of these races were done in breaststroke: the first official swim stroke in Europe.
Breaststroke exploded in popularity after being described in the book The Art of Swimming in 1696. After the original French text was translated into English, breaststroke became the dominant swim stroke in Europe for hundreds of years.
Related: The History of Swim Strokes
But it wasn’t the ONLY stroke. There’s some evidence of an over-arm, freestyle-like stroke being used by ancient Greeks, Assyrians and Aboriginal Australians. And the use of front crawl-like strokes was also well documented among Native Americans, Pacific Island tribes and various African peoples.
Some swimmers started to adopt the English sidestroke in the 1840s. You can think of sidestroke as freestyle’s older brother!
Early Freestyle Competition
One race in 1844 cemented freestyle in the back of swimmers’ minds everywhere.
That year, two Native Americans, Flying Gull and Tobacco of the Ojibwe tribe, traveled to London to compete in a swim race.
When the race began, spectators were shocked at Flying Gull and Tobacco’s freestyle-like strokes. One spectator said that the swimmers “thrashed the water violently with their arms, like sails on a windmill, and beat downward with their feet, blowing with force and forming grotesque antics.”
The two newcomers left a lasting impression on swimmers across the pond. Flying Gull swam across the 130-foot pool (that’s about 40 meters) in 30 seconds. But the Europeans weren’t quite ready to let go of breaststroke as their go-to stroke…yet.
Pearl Diving in Qatar
While Europeans were dipping their toes into competitive swimming during this time, many people around the world were still swimming for necessity.
In the 19th century, pearl diving was one of the most vibrant industries in Qatar. Divers would tie weights to their legs and dive up to 18 meters underwater to gather oysters in the hopes of finding the ultimate treasure: beautiful, natural pearls.
Pearl diving brought piles of money to Qatar, and many divers supported their families with months-long voyages during pearl season.
Swimming’s Olympic Debut
While divers in the Gulf were finding treasure deep underwater, swimmers around the world were gearing up for swimming’s big debut at the 1896 Olympic Games.
At the first modern Olympics in Athens, there were four events: the 100-, 500- and 1200-meter freestyles, plus a special 100-meter race for sailors. All of the events were done in open water!
After the first Olympics, swimming was officially established as a major competitive sport around the world.
A Changing Sport
Over the years, the event lineup changed: Backstroke was added for men’s competition in 1900 and for women in 1924.
Swimsuits got smaller and more technical, and athletes began to refine their skills to move through the water even faster.
In 1924, swimmers started competing in the standard, 50-meter, Olympic sized swimming pool with lane markers. I suppose you could consider that the beginning of the competitive swimming landscape we know today.
By the 1950s, the swimming world had agreed on four competitive strokes: Butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, and front crawl, or freestyle. Over time the rules for each stroke have changed a bit: Did you know that butterfly was originally swum with a breaststroke kick?
People also swam in open water like so many of our ancestors did, but swimming for sport and fitness began to outpace swimming for hunting or survival.
Sure, some cultures still maintain their traditional hunting practices in the water, but swimming has become synonymous with athletics, or at the very least, relaxation and fun.
From A Necessity to a Sport
As swimming was rising in popularity as a sport, swimming as a necessity was falling out of favor, for a variety of reasons.
In Qatar, the discovery of oil made pearl diving a less lucrative business, and people decided to follow the money. In Southeast Asia, overfishing has caused the Bajau people to struggle to support themselves in their traditional, seafaring way of life.
People still swam, but the tide was shifting, and today we see the result of that shift.
These days, when you think of swimming, you think of the most respected athletes in the world. Swimmers like Michael Phelps train their entire lives for a chance at greatness, and they have the god-like physiques to show for it. I can guarantee you that most swimmers 1,000 years ago didn’t look anything like Caeleb Dressel or Michael Phelps.
While many ancient swimmers hopped in the water without a swimsuit, modern swimmers race in specialized, technical suits that are designed to minimize drag and compress the muscles for maximum speed and endurance. So much science goes into these suits, and everything swimmers wear now, for that matter. From goggles to swim caps to fins, everything has been engineered with speed in mind.
Most elite swimmers start training as children…sometimes as young as five or six years old! And many of them will continue to swim and compete well into their old age.
Swimming may have evolved significantly over the last few thousand years, but one thing is for sure: Humans were meant to swim.