free web hosting | website hosting | Business Hosting Services | Free Website Submission | shopping cart | php hosting
Rethinking Africa’s contribution to global cultural history II

lessons from a comparative historical analysis of mankala board-games and geomantic divination

by Wim van Binsbergen

to homepage

Part I: Abstract and contents | Part III (section 3-5)

1. Introduction

The Black Athena debate[1] has made at least one thing clear: we require new modes of thinking about cultural dynamics and interdependence. Are ‘continents’ or ‘races’ viable units of analysis in this connection? It is scarcely likely, not even if these claims come from African and African American, ‘Afrocentrist’ authors seeking to overcome the the exclusion to which they and their ancestors have been subjected for the past few centuries, in North America and in the world system at large.[2] We know that ‘facts’ of cultural distribution and history never speak for themselves, have no independent objective existence, but are to a large extent determined by the paradigmatic selectivity under which they have been produced. The Eurocentric and racialist bias which Black Athena I has sought to expose and explode is unlikely to be absent from other products of North Atlantic scholarship besides classical studies. It probably left its marks, e.g., on African Studies,[3] one of my own disciplines, which has provided much of the data for the present article. Meanwhile the counterpart of such Eurocentric racism, notably the extremist variant of Afrocentrism which claims that European, North Atlantic, and increasingly global civilisation sprang uniquely from Africa, constitutes essentially the same sort of bias. In the sense that one cannot defeat one racism by invoking another, there is an awkward contradiction here, which has given rise to unnecessary confusion in the context of the Black Athena debate.[4]

                        In the context of critical, comparative empirical research involving a complex body of data (each of whose components may have been collected by a different researcher and for different purposes, under varying ideological, epistemological and methodological conditions), such biases may provisionally be hoped to become manifest, or to cancel out. Empirical research is not an alternative to theoretical, methodological and philosophical critique, but it may open up vistas and suggest new models and interrelations which otherwise would have remained outside our scope. However, such empirical exploration is not a final phase; after completion, its findings are to inspire further, more focused theoretical work.

                        Much of the identity discourse, in the hands of African and Afrocentrist philosophers, literary writers and politicians, as well as in the hands of racialist or Eurocentric opponents of Afrocentrism, is of an aggregate and extremely abstract nature. It pays little attention to the details, the attending specific social practices and experiences, the specific dynamics and the range of variation between, and within, African countries and periods of African history. Today however it is no longer necessary to discuss matters of African cultural history in broadly sweeping terms. A century of specialised ethnographic and historical research on Africa, however teeming with biases, has allowed us to proceed to much greater precision, dividing up cultural heritages on the African continent into component strands and linking each of these strands specifically to global cultural history. What we lose in the process is an, ideologically attractive, blanket concept of mystical Africanness — focus of so much positive and negative bias. What we hope to gain is a more realistic view of the continental and intercontinental connections of the varieties of cultural achievements, borrowings and transformations — so that the African continent itself (whose name in the course of two millennia has inflated from the designation of a minor North African region[5] to cover an entire continental land mass, and to entail a myth of racial identity encompassing a sizeable section of mankind) dissolves as a unit of study, to be relegated once more — together with all other continents — to the status of a culturally and politically indifferent land mass and nothing more.

                        What does an analysis of the type advocated suggest as to Africa’s place in long-term global cultural history? Is Africa the unique and universal matrix, the primal origin of civilisation, as claimed in extremist appropriations of Black Athena? Is it, on the contrary, the exclusively receptive, passive end station of imported culture produced by the genius of other continents, as in the Eurocentric myth? Do more subtle models of exchange and transformation present themselves?


2. Two case studies: geomantic divination and mankala board-games in Africa and elsewhere

2.1. Focus

In order to explore these questions, I will offer two — extremely truncated — case studies, tracing the trajectory of two famous genres of African cultural production widely attested across the continent since the sixteenth century CE, and featuring in many constructions of Africa as a continental cultural unit: geomantic divination, and mankala.

                        Geomantic divination consists in the systematic production, naming and (by reference to a fixed catalogue) interpretation of one randomly produced combination of lines, seeds, pebbles, or wooden or ivory tablets, from among the total set of 2n possible combinations.

                        The term mankala refers to a family of board-games where, under elaborate rules, a fixed number of pebbles or seeds is repeatedly redistributed over a number of holes placed in 2 to 4 rows, and successively captured.

                        These two cultural systems are part and parcel of African life, cutting across the many cultural and linguistic boundaries which that continent exhibits. They feature prominently in many attempts to define Africa, African culture, Africanness. But are they unique to Africa? Do they have an African origin? Are they perhaps merely extensively localised forms, on the soil of the land mass we have chosen to call Africa, of cultural production which have a much wider distribution in the world, and which essentially originated outside that land mass? Does their Africanness lie in this localisation? Is that the reason why they are so dominant and ubiquitous in Africa? Or is the geographical claim in itself correct but is the very concept of Africa as a viable unit of cultural analysis, misleading?

                        My aim is not to reduce the vital political and historical questions posed by Black Athena, to a neo-diffusionist analysis of two sets of cultural terms which, however charming and fascinating, would appear to be rather too harmless to create much of an impression in the context dominated by the burden of several centuries of North Atlantic cultural and racial domination. I have chosen them as exemplary, as a test case. It is my contention that the surprising patterns which such obviously African cultural items can be shown to exhibit on closer analysis, have heuristic value towards a more comprehensive and profound assessment of Africa’s (and Europe’s) place in the cultural history of mankind. Nonetheless, I am speaking of illustrations, not of a unique, all-encompassing model, let alone of proof and refutation.

                        Both material divination systems, and board-games, are formal systems, which can be fairly abstractly defined in terms of constituent elements and rules relatively impervious to individual alteration. Both consist in a drastic modelling of reality, to the effect that the world of everyday experience is very highly condensed, in space and in time, in the game and the divination rite; and while the elements of the model mimic real life, events occurring between the model’s elements have no direct and instantaneous real-life consequences. The unit of both types of events is the session, rarely extending beyond a few hours, and tied not only to the restricted space where the apparatus (e.g. a game-board, a divining board or set of tablets) is used but, more importantly, to the narrowly defined spatial configuration of the apparatus itself. The formal nature of divination and board-games lead them to be relatively a-historic (in the sense of being rather inert in the face of general social and cultural change) and to elude localisation (crossing cultural, linguistic etc. boundaries and, while allowing for local adaptation, diffusing in such a way that they can hardly ever be said to truly reflect the central orientation of a local culture).[6] This makes divination systems and board-games very welcome guiding fossils in cultural history, but their own history (in the sense of movement in space and transformation over time under explained conditions) is far more difficult to write.

2.2. A Neolithic context

I have elsewhere argued a Neolithic context for the emergence of board-games and divination.[7] These cultural forms are specific modellings of time and space, linked to agriculture and animal husbandry as man’s most drastic redefinition of space and time before the rise of the modern technology of communication and transport, and of electronic media. The Neolithic constitutes a base-line beyond which we need not seek for historical clues and geographical connections, at least not in the limited context of the present argument.[8] The parcelling up of a local area in adjacent yet separately worked and administered fields, surrounding a localised community whose ritual unity is expressed by a shrine or temple, a cemetery, a megalithic structure, etc. — a community whose main raison d’阾re may well have been to pool resources not only against outside attack but also against internal food shortages, through redistribution —, fits the Neolithic archaeological record as well as the form and rules of mankala. It also has a link with the iconography of historical early agricultural communities, in whose representations a grid-like pattern not unlike a mankala board is a recurrent feature, even although we may not assume the correspondence to be as neat as in the earliest forms of Sumerian, Egyptian and Chinese writing, where such a pattern indeed means ‘field’.[9] Looking for further corroboration I came across Gilbert’s work which explicitly links the layout of Egyptian board-games (though not mankala but znt) with the pattern of irrigation ditches in the Egyptian agricultural landscape.[10] Here may be an important key to the layout of the mankala board.[11]

2.3. Geomantic divination

Geomancy constitutes a ubiquitous and dominant family of divination systems, including such famous members as Ifa, Fa, ‘Sixteen Cowries’ (Nigeria and West Africa in general), Sikidy (Madagascar and Comoro Isl.), Hakata (Southern Africa), ?/span>Ilm al-raml or kha/t/t al-raml (North Africa).[12]

                        Africa is often presented as the continent in which divination is still part of everyday life, and these prominent divination systems tend to be presented as incorporating the very spirit of African life today and in the past. The material apparatus in all these regions is very different, ranging from divination chains, or shells cast in a square, rimmed wooded board covered with sand in West-Africa, or four tablets in Southern Africa; to piles of grain or pebbles in the Indian Ocean area, and — in North and North East Africa — the forceful ‘hitting of the sand’ ( /darb al-raml) with a stick, in order to produce a chance number of indentures which number can then be scored as either odd or even.

                        Also in geomancy, therefore, one is justified to see the many variations of the ‘art of drawing lines in the sand’ (Arab. kha/t/t al raml) as primarily an evocation of the several transformations of space through which the environment is turned into a productive field: through demarcation, clearing, ploughing, irrigation perhaps, and harvesting.[13] Whatever departure from more original forms of divination we encounter, there is always the link with the ground: if the divination no longer takes place on the actual ground but in a miniature representation such as the square West African divining-board, then at least its bottom has to be filled with sand; if the soil imagery has been almost entirely abandoned and the system reduced to the fall of four tablets, these are at least cast upon the soil — typically a soil which is transformed and demarcated by covering it with a sacred cloth or sacrificial animal skin. I think it is highly significant that at the beginning of the divination session the Southern African diviner usually smacks down, with great relish, onto the soil the bag containing his tablets — thus awakening the spirits of the soil (his ancestors, notably).

                        When in an above note I compared Arabian geomancy with South East Asian agricultural practices, I was merely pointing out a parallel which is historically conceivable in the light of the east-bound Old World diffusion of agriculture as a human invention.[14] The last thing I want to suggest is that the Arabian symbolism derives from South East Asian agricultural practices. The link is far more indirect, and even the Chinese I Ching system,[15] which via Chinese/Arab trade on the port of Basra in the late first millennium CE is only one of several formative influences that produced 'ilm al-raml.

                        Meanwhile, it is only correct to point out that many layers are piled up in the geomantic symbolism, making for a multi-referential coding system whose co-ordinates in space and time are typically complex and confused.[16] There is, as above, the maternal (and psychoanalytically oedipal), nurturative, agriculture-related symbolism of unfathomable and ungraspable earth as the source of life. But there is also the symbolism of fragmented and tangible earth, dust, dirt, pebbles, as the lowly (psycho璦nalytically anal) origins of man and of life in general. There is the combination of these two themes in the ‘black and red’, the fertile alluvial soil and the barren desert, which was how the ancient Egyptians concept璾alised their country. There is earth as the time-less repository of the dead, as the underworld, the alternative source of power and knowledge. And, particularly relevant in the Arabian context with its heritage of magical, demonological and astrological ideas from the Ancient Near East and Graeco-Roman-Judaeo-Christian civilisation, there is earth as the opposite of heaven, so that geomancy is divination not by the stars but by the earth, while the earth is the typical place where magicians, by hitting the very ground with a stick or a wand,[17] assert their autonomous right to divine status and power and by implication their kinship with Satan, as in the following Coptic formula for love magic (first millennium CE):

‘...Shurin, Shuran, Shutaban, Shutaben, Ibonese, Sharsaben,... Satan the devil, who beat with his staff upon the earth saying: ‘‘I am a god also’’...’ [18]

There can be no doubt that the /darb al-raml procedure as described below implicitly emulates these magical themes.

                        With the exception of the Southern African variant of geomancy (where the tablets’ fall is interpreted directly, i.e. without the construction of a standard geomantic symbol) the result produced by the geomantic apparatus is interpreted, through a process of transformation and elimination, as contributing one horizontal line, of one or two dots (one for odd, two for even), to a four-line geomantic symbol, of which there are of course sixteen (24):

or, in the Arabian notation:

More complex procedures may raise this number to any higher power of 2. A written or memorised key (the catalogue) provides the interpretation of each geomantic symbol, and of their combinations.

                        The available evidence allows us to map the global geographical distribution of the geomantic family as in Figure 1, as a basis for the reconstruction of its geographical diffusion in Figure 2.[19]

                        According to the current state of historical reconstructions, the Hellenic, Hellenistic, Hermetic, Jewish, Persian, African, Indian and Chinese borrowings[20] into the Arabic literate corpus of geomancy point to a drafting (after unsystematic earlier forms) of the classic, strongly astrological geomantic system in Southern Mesopotamia in an Isma'ili context in the tenth century CE. Subsequently, the system’s rapid and successful spread over the Islamic and Jewish intellectual world, and hence into Europe, Africa and the Indian Ocean region, was largely due to its being enshrined in widely circulated treatises. Of these, perhaps the most famous and successful has been the Kitab al-fasl fi usul 'ilm al-raml) by the Berber shaykh Muhammad al-Zanati (c. 1200 CE).

                        An early, original North West African input into the system is suggested by al-Zanati’s origin, by the early circulation of Berber names for the sixteen basic geomantic configurations,[21] and by the prominence of proto-mankala and proto-geomancy in the latter-day North West African material.[22]Yet the latter-day Ifa, Fa, and ‘Sixteen Cowries’, the most prominent divination systems of West Africa, derive directly from the Arabian prototype. A careful examination of the binary mathematical structure of both the Southern African four-tablet divination system, and the more directly Arabian-derived forms of geomancy found in the Indian Ocean region led me to hypothesise historical connections. These could subsequently be ascertained when I found identical terms and concepts in the interpretative catalogues attending the divination system in these two more or less adjacent regions. The four horizontal lines of the standard geomantic symbols, where each line can take two values (uneven or even, one dot or two), turned out to be transformed into four tablets, where each tablet can take two values (obverse or reverse); in the process, the attending interpretative catalogue was partly maintained, partly localised.[23]

Figure 1. Distribution of the geomantic family of divination systems.



Sikidy of Madagascar and Comoro Isl. Southern African four-tablet system 'ilm al-raml and European derivates (since the late Middle Ages)
ramalasastra of India simple geomancies of the African interior focal points in the distribution of geomancy: A. China (1st mill. BCE); B. N.W. Africa (before 1st mill. CE); C. South Mesopotamia (end of 1st mill. CE); D. Madagascar (2nd mill. CE); E. West Africa (2nd mill. CE)
Ifa, Fa, 'sixteen cowries', of West Africa and the New World I Ching system of China probable diffusion pattern of geomancy

Figure 2. Probable diffusion pattern of geomantic divination.

Let us now discuss the mankala family of board games in some detail.

2.4. Mankala

The pioneer in this field, the late nineteenth-century American museum anthropologist Culin,[24] claims the mankala game to constitute ‘Africa’s national game’ — a claim since repeated many times and still upheld by some major authors in this field, Townshend[25] and Russ.[26] Of the five families of board-games into which the principal authority in this field of scholarship, Murray[27] classifies all known historic types, Africa is claimed to exhibit only one, for which he employs the generic, Arabic name of mankala. This type of game was first attested[28] in the Kitab al-Aghani by the Arab author Abu’l Faradj (897-967 CE). Mankala is found all over sub-Saharan Africa. In accordance with Murray’s claim, it is that continent’s only board-game outside clearly Arabianised contexts (where the checkers-like dara game appears, with a distribution as diverse as Islamic influence in Africa) or Europeanised contexts.

                        Figure 3 summarises the global distribution of mankala, and suggests the underlying pattern of diffusion as shown in Figure 4.[29]


Figure 3. Geographical distribution of mankala.

inset: distribution of the dara game

Neolithic mankala (shaded = hypothetical 3-row mankala
2-row mankala 4-row mankala

                        Townshend has extensively argued against the central role Murray had attributed to Asia and to Islam in the spread of mankala, and in favour of a uniquely African origin and transformation of the mankala family of board-games. So much so that in his opinion even their distribution in Asia should be directly derived from African models alleged to be recently imported to South Asia by black slaves — whose presence there regrettably cannot be denied. Already twenty years ago Townshend complained[30] that everyone (except the archaeologist/ palaeontologist Louis Leakey[31]) seemed to be utterly determined to find by all means a non-African origin for this family of board-games. In 1979 this point was repeated even more forcefully, when Townshend concluded a painstaking distributional analysis of mankala on the African continent with the words:

‘The conclusions I personally draw from all this are:

(i) that 4-row Mankala is of black-African origin;

(ii) that there is a better prima-facie case for 2-row Mankala being of African than of Asian origin;

(iii) that there is a distinct possibility of Mankala having been introduced whether by slaves or returned travellers from Africa to Asia (Leakey’s conclusion of 40 years ago); and

(iv) that the ‘ki-Arabu’ forms of 4-row Mankala may have been brought to the East African coast from the interior (e.g. the Lake Malawi region) by Arabs or their African employees or possibly by some earlier current of cultural diffusion.’[32]

Figure 4. Probable diffusion pattern of mankala.

legend: as previous diagram

Townshend’s view, although tying in with the Afrocentrist point of view, is  misleading.  It actually forces him to manipulate the data.[33]  It would be much better to use the considerable archaeological evidence, from various sites in East and Central Africa, of mankala-like rock art.[34] These mankala-like patterns (if that is what they are, despite their vertical placement, which defies their being used for actually playing mankala) have not been convincingly dated, and might be as recent as the East African Iron Age. However I would prefer, with Townshend and Leakey, to interpret them as Neolithic.

                        The geographical parameters of the Fertile Crescent were formulated[35] prior to two major developments in our perception of Old World post-Mesolithic history: the discovery of the Indus civilisation, and the discovery that in Africa independent Neolithic domestication of crops and livestock had taken place: in the once fertile central Sahara, in the Ethiopian highlands, but also outside these centres, in the ecotones between savanna and forest.[36] Combining this with the evidence on Neolithic (pre- or proto) mankala from Egypt, Jordan and Cyprus, the conclusion suggests itself that any strict distinction between Africa and Asia may be irrelevant and misleading. The Neolithic transformation processes leading (among so many other components of civilisation) to mankala occurred fairly independently in parts of both continents. Thus mankala may have sprung from Africa probably as much as it sprung from Asia: the crucial characteristic of the locus of its emergence was its being the scene of Old World agricultural revolution — a kind of greatly extended Fertile Crescent, redefined so as to stretch deeply into North West and North East Africa, and straddling both continents.

2.5. The special position of North West Africa

North West Africa stands out as an interesting area for a further exploration of a possible African contribution to the two cultural systems we have examined. Here ritual and divination offer many converging examples of grid-based procedures. One instance is jackal divination,[37] where in the evening the soil is divided in a rectangular grid in order to be able to inspect, in the morning, if and how a jackal has disturbed the surface in that grid. Another example concerns the harvest ritual as described in Viviane P鈗ues’s classic book L’Arbre cosmique dans la pens閑 populaire et dans la via quotidienne du Nord-Ouest africain;[38] this ritual is locally conceptualised and represented exactly as if it were a three-row mankala board, with small piles of grain deposited as sacrificial offerings in the middle of each square cell, i.e. each field (figure 5). In addition to an actual description of a mankala-type game,[39] P鈗ues also presents[40] intriguing diagrams of patterns of irrigation in arid circum-Saharan communities, which almost read as descriptions of mankala (figure 6). As far as hints of possible formative influences upon both mankala and geomancy are concerned, the North West African material is of such abundance and consistence, and presents the imagery of these two formal systems with such clarity, that a historical contribution from this region to their initial formulation must be considered quite likely.

Figure 5. A harvest ritual in North West Africa[41]

‘Mali: threefold snake representing the cultivated field in the [western] Sudan, with a pile of sorghum in each section cut after the sacrifice’ (from left to right the three vertical series are marked ‘red’, ‘black’ and ‘white’

                        But here again[42] we should add, to the argument of origins and diffusion, the argument of subsequent transformative localisation after arrival at the new destination — an aspect on which diffusionist approaches have always been rather silent. If part of the cultural material that went into the making of both geomancy and mankala originally derived from cultures situated on the African land mass, it is clear that both systems owe at least as much of their final ramifications and success to the Islamic connexion: by decisively re-formulating this material in terms of the fully-fledged, astrologically-oriented divination system of 'ilm or kha/t al-raml, and by putting the effective and (through its access to very elaborate magical arts)[43] pervasive vehicle of Islam and Islam-oriented trading at the disposal of both geomancy and mankala as a main vehicle of spread.

Figure 6. An irrigation pattern in North West Africa[44]

2.6. The general convergence of geomantic divination and mankala[45]

What strikes us is the similarity between the distribution and diffusion patterns of mankala and geomancy. Although their earliest histories differ, both took root, diversified and transformed in Africa, and both spread from there the New World. The differences concern the periphery of their geographical distributions. Contrary to geomancy, which from the early second millennium CE spread to Europe across the Mediterranean to become a mainstay of Renaissance magic, mankala never made it to Western Europe before the toy manufacturing industry along with the African airport art industry seized on the idea. In the Far East, mankala was a bit more successful than its esoteric distant cousin, geomancy, in penetrating Indonesia and the Philippines. But whereas geomancy, in the form of I Ching, has been a very old and central part of the culture of China as a whole and hence even spread to neighbouring countries e.g. Tibet, it is only in regional pockets of Southern China that we encounter mankala.

                        In general, these diffusion patterns show that Africa is not merely a passive importer of culture but also a place of active production, transformation, and export of culture for global use.

                        Within the African continent, this convergence between geomancy and mankala is also to be found at the regional level. As a detailed study of the iconography of the four tablets indicates, geomantic divination has reached Southern Africa via a corridor linking Tanzanian and Mozambican groups like the Konde to the Shona-speaking groups on the highlands of Zimbabwe; from there again links have existed with Sotho/Tswana speaking groups to the south and west of Zimbabwe. For many centuries the corridor constituted an important trade route, along which travelled Asian trade goods against gold and cattle, notions of more or less divine kingship, and Indonesian as well as — much later — Islamic cultural influences. For students of mankala this must ring a bell: in this part of South East Africa, the pattern of spread of four-tablet divination coincides with that of four-row mankala, whose virtual confinement to East and Southern Africa almost certainly shows it to be an African development. It is a tantalising question for further research to decide whether

     four-row mankala caused the apparatus of geomancy to be altered towards a four-tablet system, or

     four-tablet geomancy caused the incomparably more complex four-row variety of mankala to be produced out of the pre-existing two- and three-row variants.


to homepage

Part I: Abstract and contents | Part III (section 3-5)

[1]Bernal, M., 1987, Black Athena: The Afroasiatic roots of classical civilization, I. The fabrication of Ancient Greece, 1785-1985, London etc.: Free Association Books; Bernal, M., 1991, Black Athena: The Afroasiatic roots of classical civilization, II. The archaeological and documentary evidence, New Brunswick (N.J.): Rutgers University Press; Lefkowitz, M.R., & MacLean Rogers, G., eds., 1996, Black Athena revisited, Chapel Hill & London: University of North Carolina Press; Wim van Binsbergen, ‘Black Athena Ten Years After: Towards a constructive re-assessment’ (this volume); and extensive references cited in these publications.

[2]For a definition and an extensive bibliography on Afrocentrism, cf. Wim van Binsbergen ‘Black Athena Ten Years After’, nn. 3-4.

[3]Ibid., n. 37.

[4]See Bernal’s defence on this point in: Martin Bernal, ‘Responses to Black Athena: General and linguistic issues’ (this volume); and my ‘Black Athena: Ten Years After’, n. 3.

[5]Cf. Leglay, M., ‘Africa’, in: Ziegler, K. and Sontheimer, W., 1979, Der Kleine Pauly: Lexikon der Antike: Auf der Grundlage von Pauly’s Realencyclop鋎ie der Classischen Altertumswissenschaft, 5 vols., M黱chen: Deutscher Taschenbuch, I, cols. 109-110, with references; Gsell, S., 1913-1928, Histoire ancienne de l'Afrique du Nord, Paris: Hachette, 8 vols. Of course, the name Asia went through a similar geographical expansion, originally deriving from a particular region Assuwa in ‘Asia Minor’; cf. Bernal, Black Athena II, pp. 33f; Georgacas, D.J., 1969, ‘The name Asia for the continent; its history and origin’, Names, 17, 1: 1-90; Wainwright, G.A., 1915, ‘Alashia-Alasa; and Asy’, Klio, 14: 1-36.

[6]This point was implied by Tylor, E.B., 1880, ‘Remarks on the geographical distribution of games’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 9: 23-30. Remarkable examples of the mankala game’s variants being persistent to change in the face of migration across vast areas and being surrounded by distinctly different variants, are e.g. given by: Townshend, P., 1979, ‘Mankala in eastern and southern Africa: A distributional analysis’, Azania, 14: 109-138, p. 127f.

[7]Van Binsbergen, 1996, ‘Time’; van Binsbergen, in press. Cf. Anonymous, 1990, ‘Playing board games in the Stone Age’, “Geographica”, National Geographic Magazine, 177, 2; Rollefson, G.O., 1992, ‘A Neolithic game board from ?/span>Ain Ghazal, Jordan’, Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, 286, May 1992: 1-5. Considerably later are the Bronze Age ‘gaming stones’ (regular rows of cup-holes cut in stone and thus suggestive of mankala boards) found elsewhere in the Eastern Mediterranean basin: Lee, J., 1982, ‘Early Bronze Age game stones from Bab edh-Dhra, Jordan’, Levant: Journal of the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem, 14: 171-174 (with 3x10 cups suggestive of three-row mankala); Swiny, S., 1980, ‘Bronze Age gaming stones from Cyprus’, Report of the Department of Antiquities of Cyprus, pp. 54-78. Similarly, Deledicq & Popova, who wrote a brilliant study of the finite mathematics of the mankala game, claim that mankala originates in Mesopotamia: Deledicq, A., & Popova, A., 1977, Wari et solo: Le jeu de calculs africain, Paris: CEDIC.

[8]It is important to realise that the context of mankala-like artefacts characterised by two to four rows of cup-holes, is formed not so much by the set of all certified mankala boards (which could only lead to tautology), but by the set of all artefacts with cup-holes. The latter set is much larger, much more varied, has a much wider distribution in space and time, and is likely to include artefacts which, while not yet mankala boards themselves, constitute the non-ludic prototypes for such boards. Among Upper Palaeolithic and later rock art, cup-holes occur perhaps as frequently as grid marks (e.g. Capitan, L., & Peyrony, D., 1921, ‘D閏ouverte d’un sixi鑝e squelette moust閞ien ?la Ferrassie, Dordogne’, Revue Anthropologique, 31: 382f; Levy, G.R., 1948, The gate of horn: A study of the religious conceptions of the stone age, and their influence upon European thought, London: Faber & Faber, pp. 6, 65f, and p. 41, cf. 125, 146). Cup-holes are also a regular feature in Neolithic and Bronze Age ritual contexts, where they often appear on altars or ‘libation stones’. The early alleged ‘mankala boards’ in stone, or ‘gaming stones’, from the Near East as discussed in the previous note, and from East Africa as referenced below, may belong to the same family of cupped stones, and may therefore be merely pre- or proto-ludic, rather than ludic. Calling them ‘mankala boards’ is begging the question. For an extensive discussion, see: van Binsbergen, in press.

[9]In the most archaic Sumerian writing (c. 3000 BCE) the agricultural field was simply represented by a rectangle divided by vertical lines: the image of a field divided by irrigation ditches: . In the subsequent archaic script (Borger, R., 1978, Assyrisch-babylonische Zeichenliste, Kevelaer/ Neukirchen-Vluyn: Butzon & Bercker/ Neukirchener Verlag, 12; character no. 105 I) this was only slightly transformed into: , which ultimately led to the standard character (no. 105 I (77); Borger, p. 87): . Similarly, in Chinese (H鈔 Y頽g C韉ian/ A Chinese English dictionary, 1988, Beijing), the character for field is: , which as a radical occurs in a great many combinations. In the combination signifying man (agriculturalist), later standardised as ; this representation of ‘field’ is already attested in the most archaic Chinese writing on seals and oracle bones (2nd mill. BCE), as: (Needham, J., with Wing Ling, 1956, Science and civilization in China, vol. 2. History of scientific thought, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 226). In Egyptian hieroglyphic, the oblong grid: has the cognate meaning of ‘district’, ‘administered land area’ — which was translated in Greek as nom髎; Faulkner, R.O., 1962, A concise dictionary of Middle Egyptian, Oxford: Griffith Institute, p. 54, 178 and passim; Gardiner, A.H., 1957, Egyptian Grammar, 3rd ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press, sign N24 p. 488.

[10]Gilbert, P., 1965, ‘Irrigation, jeux de damier et sens du rectangle dans l’art 蒰yptien’, Chronique d’Egypte, 40: 72-78; the Egyptologist Arno Egberts however points out to me that Gilbert’s view has not been generally adopted among Egyptologists. Martin Bernal, however, draws my attention to the fact that the znt hieroglyphic sign (Gardiner number Y5; cf. Gardiner, Egyptian Grammar, p. 534) is also prominent in mn•, ‘moor, marshland’.

[11]A caveat is in order on this point. The grid-like pattern is extremely simple and hence has a ubiquity — in rock art (e.g. Breuil, H., H. Lothe & le Col. Brenans, 1954, Les roches peintes du Tassili-n-Ajjer, Paris: Arts et M閠iers graphiques), vessel decoration, tattooing patterns (e.g. Marcy, G., 1931, ‘Origine et significations des tatouages de tribus berb鑢es’, in: Revue de l’Histoire des Religions, 51, tome 102: 13-66), textile decoration etc. — which may well defy any convincing systematic and converging interpretation by reference to productive and community patterns. Grid patterns abound in pre-Neolithic rock art, where they are usually interpreted by archaeologists as representing traps or nets in which to capture animals. Also Upper Palaeolithic techniques like weaving and basket-making suppose or produce grid-like patterns which are likely to persist in iconography. In the Chinese context, the interpretation of the simple grid sign as ‘field’ appears to be superimposed on an earlier reading of the sign as animal foot-prints, again in a hunting context; Wang Hongyan, 1993, The origins of Chinese characters, Beijing: Sinolingua.

[12]The literature, both scholarly and practical/ esoteric, on geomantic divination is fairly voluminous, and much of it is of excellent standards; I can only present the barest selection here. For a recent review by the author of one of the most original contributions in this field, cf.: Jaulin, R., 1991, G閛mancie et islam, Paris: Christian Bourgeois. On the West African material, which is so conducive to the construction of geomancy as a typically African item of culture, cf.: Cf. Kassibo, B., 1992, ‘La g閛mancie ouest-africaine: Formes endog鑞es et emprunts ext閞ieurs’, Cahiers d’蓆udes Africaines, 32, 4, no. 128: 541-596; Traor? M.L., 1979, ‘Vers une pens閑 originelle africaine: Expos?g閛mantique, critiques de la n間ritude et du consciencisme’, Th鑣e de 3e cycle, Paris-IV, unpublished; Abimbola, ‘W., 1976, Ifa: An exposition of the Ifa literary corpus, New York: Nok. For a more popular overview, also dealing with the spread of geomancy to late medieval Europe, where it became a standard and increasingly popularised form of divination as from Renaissance times, cf.: Skinner, S., 1980, Terrestrial astrology: Divination by geomancy, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, which however should be used with caution when it comes to the early history of geomancy. On geomancy (Sikidy) on Madagascar in relation to the general African material, cf.: Trautmann, R., 1939-1940, La divination ?la C魌e des Esclaves et ?la Madagascar: Le V鬱o?Fa — le Sikidy, M閙oires de l’Institut Fran鏰is d’Afrique Noire, no. 1, Paris: Larose; H閎ert, J.C., 1961, ‘Analyse structurale des g閛mancies comoriennes, malgaches et africaines’, Journal de la Soci閠?des Africanistes, 31, 2: 115-208. For possible links with the Egyptian magic, cf. Barb, A.A., 1971, ‘Mystery, myth, and magic’, in: Harris, J.R., ed., The legacy of Egypt, 2nd ed., pp. 138-169, Oxford: Clarendon, pp. 138-169. Merely for the sake of brevity, may I further refer to my own recent writings for extensive references on geomancy in Africa, the Islamic world, Asia and Europe: van Binsbergen, W.M.J, 1994, ‘Divinatie met vier tabletten: Medische technologie in Zuidelijk Afrika’, in: S. van der Geest, P. ten Have, G. Nijhoff & P. Verbeek-Heida, eds., De macht der dingen: Medische technologie in cultureel perspectief, Amsterdam: Spinhuis, pp. 61-110; van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1995, ‘Four-tablet divination as trans-regional medical technology in Southern Africa’, Journal of Religion in Africa, 25, 2: 114-140; van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1996, ‘Transregional and historical connections of four-tablet divination in Southern Africa’, Journal of Religion in Africa, 26, 1: 2-29; all in preparation for my forthcoming monograph.

[13]These patterns are so widespread in the Old World, that e.g. Arabian divination practices might be better understood in the light of customs in South East Asia; cf. Granet, M., 1988, La pens閑 chinoise, Paris: Albin Michel, nouvelle 閐ition, p. 486 n. 86 (earlier ed. Paris: La Renaissance du Livre, 1934):

‘La tradition des rois cloche-pied s’est conserv閑 au Siam et au Cambodge jusqu’au XIXe si鑓le. Apr鑣 avoir trac?un sillon (d閟acralisation du sol par le chef au d閎ut d’une campagne agricole), ils devaient aller s’appuyer contre un arbre et se tenir debout sur un seul pied (le pied droit plac?sur le genou gauche).’ (italics added — WvB).

Of course, ritual ploughing was one of the important duties of the archaic Chinese king; Maspero, H., 1978, China in antiquity, tr. F.A. Kierman, Folkestone: Dawson, of La Chine antique, revised edition, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France; first published 1927.

[14]Cf. the theoretically obsolete but of lasting descriptive persuasiveness: Leser, P., 1928, ‘West-鰏tliche Landwirtschaft: Kulturbeziehungen zwischen Europa, dem vorderen Orient und dem Fernen Osten, aufgezeigt an landwirtschaftlichen Ger鋞en und Arbeitsvorg鋘gen’, in: Koppers, W., ed., Festschrift/ Publication d’hommage offerte au P.W. Schmidt, Vienna: Mechitaristen-Congregations-Buchdruckerei, pp. 416-484.

[15]I Ching may not even be Chinese in origin, as is suggested by its binary nature (as against the five elements of Chinese cosmology), and by the puzzling non-Chinese (Tocharian?) etymology of such key concepts as kun,, I Ching symbol [ image to be added ] , the receptive earth-like principle, which the Sinologist E. Pulleyblank claimed to be a cognate of Greek khthoon?; also cf. Needham c.s.; I owe this reminder to Martin Bernal as Sinologist. However, by the time it spread to the world of early Islam, I Ching — as a result of transformative localisation — had been a pivotal part of Chinese culture for several millennia.

[16]Cf. van Binsbergen, W.M.J., in preparation, Four tablets: A Southern African divination system in its transregional and historical context.

[17]E.g. Exodus 7: 8-12 on Aaron’s rod, and Exodus 17 on water from the rock. In the context of the Black Athena debate with its Egyptocentric overtones, one is tempted to consider the iconographic theme of the pharaoh slaying his enemies with a mace — a constant of Egyptian representation which first appears on the Narmer palette c. 3000 BCE. There is also a conceivable link with Herakles and his formidable club, an iconographic and mythical theme which Bernal (Black Athena II, pp. 106ff) identifies as very ancient on the basis of being pre-sword, and which he links not only, in line with conventional wisdom, to the Sumero-Akkadian kingship (cf. Gilgamesh) but also to pharaonic kingship.

[18]Papyrus Berlin 8320 (Koptische Texte), as quoted in: de Jong, K.H.E., 1921, De magie bij de Grieken en Romeinen, Haarlem: Bohn, p. 238f; further brief reference to this text in: Meyer, M., & Smith, R., 1994, Ancient Christian magic: Coptic texts of ritual power, San Francisco: Harper Collins, p. 367, n. 75, l. 18, cf. p. 161; also cf. Isaiah 14: 13-14; Ezekiel 28: 2.

[19]van Binsbergen 1996, ‘Transregional’; van Binsbergen, in prep.

[20]Not by accident, a similar mix (althought the admixture of Indian and Chinese material is more conspicuous in geomancy) went, in the same period, into the compilation of that famous piece of Arabic magic writing, GHayat al-hakim also known as Picatrix: Pingree, D., 1980, ‘Some of the sources of the GHayat al-hakim’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 43: 1-15; Hartner, W., 1965, ‘Notes on Picatrix’, Isis, 56: 438-51; Ritter, H. & M. Plessner, 1962, ‘Picatrix’: Das Ziel der Weisen von Pseudo-Magriti, London: Studies of the Warburg Institute, 27.

[21]Cf. Steinschneider, M., 1864, ‘躡er die Mondstationen (Naxatra), und das Buch Arcandam’, Zeitschrift der deutschen morgenl鋘dischen Gesellschaft, xviii: 118-206, p. 177; Steinschneider, M., 1877, ‘Die Skidy [sic] oder geomantischen Figuren’, Zeitschrift der deutschen morgenl鋘dischen Gesellschaft, 31: 762-765, especially the table.

[22]E.g. Griaule, M., 1937, ‘Note sur la divination par le chacal (Population dogon de Sanga)’, Bulletin du Comit?d’蓆udes Historiques et Scientifiques de l’Afrique Occidentale Fran鏰ise, 20, 1-2: 113-141; Paulme, D., 1937, ‘La divination par les chacals chez les Dogon de Sanga’, Journal de la Soci閠?des Africanistes, 7, 1: 1-14; P鈗ues, V., 1964, L’Arbre cosmique dans la pens閑 populaire et dans la vie quotidienne du Nord-Ouest africain, Travaux et M閙oires de l’Institut d’Ethnologie de l’Universit?de Paris, no. 70; also cf. the work on West African geomancies as cited in previous notes. I shall come back to this point.

[23]Van Binsbergen, ‘Transregional and historical connections’.

[24]Culin, S., 1896, ‘Mankala, the national game of Africa’, US National Museum Annual Report, Washington, pp. 595-607.

[25]Townshend, P., 1976-1977, ‘The SWA game of | | hus (das Lochspiel) in the wider context of African mankala’, Journal — SWA Wissenschaftliche Gesellschaft (Windhoek), 31: 85-98; Townshend, P., 1979, ‘Mankala in eastern and southern Africa’; Townshend, P., 1979, ‘Games of strategy: A new look at correlates and cross-cultural methods’, in: Schwartzman, H.B., ed., Play and culture, New York: West Point, pp. 217-225; Townshend, P., 1982, ‘Bao (Mankala): The Swahili ethic in African idiom’, Paideuma, 28: 175-191.

[26]Russ, L., 1984, Mancala games, Algonac (Michigan): Reference Publications.

[27]Murray, H.J.R., 1952, A history of board-games other than chess, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

[28]Murray, p. 165.

[29]On the basis of Murray’s detailed data: pp. 178, 240f; with additional input from Townshend (1979, 1979, 1980), as well as from the other references on mankala cited in this article.

[30]Townshend, 1976-77, p. 95.

[31]Leakey, L.S.B., 1937, White African, London, pp. 165-173.

[32]Townshend, 1979, ‘Mankala’, p. 127.

[33]He has to close his eyes for the evidence (cf. Murray, 1952, p. 36; Piggott, S., 1961, Prehistoric India: To 1000 B.C., Harmondsworth: Penguin, first publ. 1950, p. 190) on four-row mankala outside Africa:

‘In the case of four-row Mankala the evidence is clear: not one such game has been recorded outside Africa.’ (Townshend, 1982, p. 186)

Moreover he has to deny that the Ancient Egyptian examples (e.g. Parker, H., 1909, Ancient Ceylon, London: Luzac & Co., pp. 587-603; Petrie, F., 1927, Objects of daily use, London, p. 55, plate 47) are mankala boards. He bases such denial not on the grounds that context and information on the attending ludic practices is lacking (that would be an excellent point to make; see above, my note 8), but simply because they are too early to fit his Afrocentrist hypothesis; and he has to propose an unrealistically late date for the Ceylon artefacts (Parker, ibid.), which he does accept as being genuine mankala.

[34]Costermans, le Dr., 1949, ‘Relev?des stations pr閔istoriques dans les territoires de Watsa-Gomabri et de Dungu’, Zaire, iii, 2: 154-166; Viereck, A., 1973, Die Felsbilder von Twyfelfontein, Windhoek, picture 21, p. 45; Cole, S., 1954, The prehistory of East Africa, Harmondsworth: Penguin, p. 265; Jensen, A.E., 1936, Im Lande des Gada, Stuttgart: Strecker & Schr鰀er (as quoted in: Zaslavsky, C., 1990, Africa counts: Number and pattern in African culture, Brooklyn (N.Y.): Lawrence Hill, second paperback edition (first published 1973, Boston: Prindle, Weber & Schmidt), p. 126, fig. 11-6); Anfray, F., 1970, ‘Notes arch閛logiques’, Annales d’蓆hiopie, 8: 35. Townshend is well aware of this material, cf. Townshend 1976-77, p. 91 n. 1, p. 92.

[35]Breasted, J.H., 1935, Ancient times: A history of the Ancient World, New York: Harper & Brother, first published 1926.

[36]Cf. Harlan, J.R., de Wet, J.M.J., & Stemler, A.B.L., eds., 1976, Origins of African plant domestication, The Hague: Mouton, espec. pp. 3ff; Mauny, R., 1967, ‘L’Afrique et les origines de la domestication’, in: W.W. Bishop & J. Desmond-Clark, eds., Background to evolution in Africa, Chicago/ London: University of Chicago Press, p. 583-599; Stemler, A.B.L., 1980, ‘Origins of domestication in the Sahara and the Nile Valley’, in: Williams, M.A.J., & Faure, H., eds., The Sahara and the Nile: Quaternary environments and prehistoric occupation in northern Africa, pp. 503-26, Rotterdam: Balkema; Zohary, D., & Hopf, M., 1988, Domestication of plants in the Old World, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

[37]Griaule, ‘Note sur la divination par le chacal’; Paulme, o.c.

[38]P鈗ues, o.c.

[39]P鈗ues, p. 91.

[40]P鈗ues, p. 83.

[41]P鈗ues, p. 157.

[42]Cf. Wim van Binsbergen, ‘Black Athena Ten Years After’; Wim van Binsbergen, ‘Alternative models of intercontinental interaction towards the earliest Cretan script’ (both this volume).

[43]For the idea that it was access to the magical arts of Islam, more than the latter’s lapidary monotheism, which attracted Africans to this world religion, cf. Becker, C.H., 1913, ‘Neue Literatur zur Geschichte Afrikas’, Der Islam, 4: 303-312; cf. Becker, C.H., 1911, ‘Materialien zur Kenntnis des Islam in Deutsch-Ostafrika’, Der Islam, 1: 1-48; this idea was more recently revived by Brenner, L., n.d. [1985] , Reflexions sur le savoir islamique en Afrique de l’Ouest, Bordeaux: Centre d’Etude d’Afrique Noire, Universit?de Bordeaux I.

[44]Source: P鈗ues, o.c.

[45]Cf. Herodotus, Hist. ii.122, where the subterranean board-game the Egyptian king plays with Demeter/ Isis confirms not only the funerary connotations of board games like znt, but therefore also their chthonic or subterranean connotations which they share with geomancy as divination by the powers inside/below the earth.

to homepage

Part I: Abstract and contents | Part III (section 3-5)


page last modified: 03-05-01 14:46:20      
Easy Submit Add Me!