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evolution of games - AlekErickson - 12-03-2020

Hi I'm curious to know what was the first abstract, or first board game? It must have been something simple - it's just I'm having trouble understanding how we got from Neanderthals towards some people inventing Go.

RE: evolution of games - cambolbro - 12-03-2020


Our Anthropologist Walter would be the best person to answer this question, but I'll have a stab at it while he's on holidays...

The first known board games are Mehen (c. 3100 BC) and Senet (c. 3000 BC) from Ancient Egypt, both of which almost certainly involved moving pieces according to dice/stick throws.

The first known pure strategy game (if that's what you mean by "abstract") could well be Go, which has evidence dating back to 548 BC. There is an earlier game Pente Grammai from Ancient Greece c. 600 BC, but its rules are not known for certain.

This is exactly the sort of question that we hope to shed some light on in this project. Now that Ludii is largely ready, the next step is to complete our data gathering to get as much evidence as we can for ancient and early games, then look for correlations within the data in order to make plausible reconstructions and try to chart their development.


RE: evolution of games - Walter.Crist - 01-11-2021

Hi Alek!

The earliest game we know of, and know a certain amount of details about, is indeed mehen. Nevertheless it is certain that this was not the first game. Another game board (what we call "El-Mahasna Game" in our database) has a board and pieces, but is only knwon from one example. We do not know much about what games may have looked like earlier than this, or indeed in many parts of the world even during the time when we know these games existed in Egypt. Another candidate for an early game ("Chantuto Game" in our database) comes from Mexico and seems to be related to race games played in recent memory (Kawasukuts, for example).

I suspect we may never know. Part of the reason is that, before that time, people used what they could find around them to play games, and many people still do this today. They used seeds, stones, sticks, shells, even animal dropping, as pieces, and drew the board into the dirt. This leaves no possibility for them to be identified by archaeologists; the drawings disappear after the rain or wind destroys the drawing, and there's no way to tell that an unmodified naturally occurring object was used as a game piece. the Chantuto Game demonstrates this, where the board was found made on a floor in a shell mound in coastal Mexico. This is a highly unusual find though, and found on an artificial surface, which is difficult or impossible to find in naturally-occurring surfaces. I find it most probable that games were played much earlier than the evidence that we have, but we will probably never know what they were. And, of course, we do not know if Neanderthals played games.

Another interesting thing that is sort of implied by your question is that games may start out very simple and become very is curious that the earliest games we know (like senet and mehen) are more complex than things like Three Men's Morris or Tic-Tac-Toe, which are among the simplest of games we know. These simple games don't appear until the Roman Empire (First century CE or so). That's not to say they didn't exist at that point, but it's impossible for us to say for sure that they existed any earlier than that, possibly for the same reasons I already mentioned.

Please let me know if you have any further questions!

RE: evolution of games - RogerCooper - 01-17-2021

Some ancestor of Alquerque is likely older than Go as a board was found in quarry for the pyramids.

RE: evolution of games - Walter.Crist - 01-18-2021

(01-17-2021, 02:31 AM)RogerCooper Wrote: Some ancestor of Alquerque is likely older than Go as a board was found in quarry for the pyramids.
Hi Roger!

I am aware of lots of graffiti games at stone quarries In Egypt, but not specifically from those used for the pyramids. Do you have a source for this information?

The problem with graffiti for us archaeologists is that they provide merely a terminus post quem—that is, an earliest possible point for the graffiti. This means that the date of the game cannot be earlier than the date of the quarry, but does not tell us the date that it was actually made. To date something accurately, you also need a terminus ante quem—the latest possible date. For most graffiti examples, unfortunately, that is the date It was first recorded; leaving a range of several thousand years for the possible date the game was made.  It could have been made by anyone, at any time, that happened upon this site. This has been demonstrated all over Egypt, Sudan, and in Southwest Asia in the work of Alex de Voogt. If you'd like some references to his work I would gladly pass it on. 

Many of the monuments of Egypt have graffiti games on them that people have attempted to attribute to pharaonic times, but the fact is that the monuments where these games were carved have been exposed for a very long time, and so anyone in the past 5000 years could have made them.

Alquerque has never been found in an archaeological context that can be dated to the pharaonic period. The earliest solid date for Alquerque that I am aware of comes from graffiti at the baths of Hammat Gader, in what is now Israel. These Roman Baths were renovated by the Umayyad Caliph Mu'awiya in 662-663 CE, our terminus post quem for the pavements where the game appears.  The terminus ante quem is provided by the date of the earthquake in 749 CE which destroyed the baths and buried the floors. Thus, we have a narrow range of dates for this game.

The purpose of our project is, in part, to sort out the evidence for games and determine what can be reasonably dated and what cannot be.