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Although it is difficult to trace the sport's origins to a single source, implements for games similar to bowling have been discovered at Egyptian gravesites that are more than 7,000 years old. Bowling games such as boccie, quilles, skittles, candlepins, fivepins, and lawn bowls became popular in Europe during the Middle Ages (5th century to 15th century). These games all involve rolling balls at targets, though in boccie and lawn bowls the targets are other balls, not pins.

During the 1620s Dutch settlers brought bowling to North America in the form of a game called ninepins. The game involved gambling, and authorities in many areas outlawed ninepins for that reason. Popular belief states that to circumvent antigambling laws, enthusiasts added a tenth pin, and modern bowling, or tenpins, was created.

At first the sport lacked standardization and organization. Most bowling in the early 1800s occurred in cellars or basements attached to saloons. The rules, length of lanes, and weights of balls and pins varied according to who owned the lanes and who was playing at the moment.

The ABC was formed in 1895, and soon after the organization established a standard set of bowling rules. The ABC's rules and specifications, which have undergone only a few modifications, have been observed ever since.

Bowling became a popular game for both men and women in the early 1900s. Female bowlers formally organized the WIBC in 1916, and women's leagues sprung up across the United States and Canada. The sport enjoyed another period of popularity following World War II (1939-1945), when it spread to countries in Europe and Asia. In 1947 the American Junior Bowling Congress was established to oversee junior competition. The invention of automatic pinsetting machines in the early 1950s sped the pace of the game, drawing even more enthusiasts. (Previously, bowling lane employees had worked above and behind the pin deck to reset the pins by hand.)

From the early 1960s through the early 1980s bowling was a popular televised sport. The PBA tour in particular gained wide exposure after gaining airtime on network television in 1962. Other men and women's tours have been featured on cable channels.

In the 1990s automatic scoring machines, which calculate scores using computers, made the sport more accessible to beginners, and faster pinsetting machines also helped bring newcomers to the sport. Variations of the basic game, such as cosmic bowling, a game where participants use glow-in-the-dark balls and pins, have also attracted people to the sport.