Most women will agree that giving a man a round object will nearly always end up with the object being rolled, tossed or whacked with a stick. It turns out that the same was true 3,000 years ago – archeologists in China found three small leather balls in a tomb dated between 1189 and 911 BCE that showed signs they were probably used in a horse-riding game. Did China have polo before Iran? (Iran invented it, not England.) Did it have hockey before Egypt? (They played a sticks-and-ball game there around 2500 BCE, long before Canada.) Did the losers lose their heads like players in the 3,000-year-old Mayan game of Ulama? Did the archeologists play catch before reporting their find?
“The approved old age of the Yanghai balls in combination with horse-riding equipment and curved wooden sticks, reported from the same archaeological site got scientific and public attention and raised a discussion on whether these finds could be the oldest evidence for stick-and-ball games such as polo in China and Eurasia.”
A new study published in the Journal of Archaeological Science announced the discovery of three small (2.5 to 3 inches or 7.4 to 9.2cm in diameter) ancient leather-and-hair-filled leather balls in graves in the famous Yanghai cemetery near the city of Turfan in northwest China. (Photos here in the press release.) Led by Patrick Wertmann of the Asia-Orient Institute at the University of Zurich, the researchers also found the key to the purpose of the balls buried with them — a bow and a pair of well-preserved trousers indicating they belonged to some of the earliest horsemen (and pants wearers) in Eurasia. The balls were used in some sort of game, fitness activity or military exercise 500 years earlier than previously known game balls in Eurasia. What game were they playing?
“Unfortunately, however, the associated archaeological information is not sufficient to answer the question of how these balls were used exactly.”
While curved sticks have been found in Yanghai tombs, they’re much more recent than these leather balls, so hockey, polo, golf, cricket and other early forms of modern games are out of the running for now. The stuffing would make them unbounceable, so basketball is out. There was no evidence of beheading, so that eliminates Ulama. Football or volleyball? Possibly, but the evidence that the men were horsemen means it was probably some riding-related game. Whatever it was, the ancient leather balls told Wertmann something about the civilization that invented and played with them.
“Given that ball games have been considered an excellent form of exercise and military training since ancient times, we can assume that they emerged at the same time as horseback riding and the rider caste began to spread in eastern Central Asia. The obtained results once again highlight that this region was one of the centres of innovations several millennia ago.”