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Board-games and divination in global cultural history

a theoretical, comparative and historical perspective on mankala and geomancy in Africa and Asia – Part II

Wim van Binsbergen


This argument seeks to pull together the available evidence on one prominent class of board-games, mankala, highlighting its formal structure, imagery and history. It stresses mankala’s close parallels with geomantic divination, which are treated in detail. It formulates (largely in dialogue with the great historian of games Murray) such theoretical and methodological considerations as an assessment of the scattered and heterogeneous evidence necessitate. In this connection I discuss board-games and divination as formal models, their relation to narrative literature, their temporal structure, symbolism and mathematics. Mankala and geomancy display the relative indifference to local cultural specificity and change typical of formal systems; as such they are invaluable clues to cultural connections and continuities through space and time. The paper thus demonstrates a diffusionist orientation; much attention is paid to patterns of distribution and spread. Contrary to the tendency to extreme, entrenched localisation and fragmentation which has been typical of anthropology during most of the second half of the twentieth century until recently, I have sought to demonstrate how the practices and meanings attaching to artefacts are not rigidly confined within local or regional ethnic, linguistic and political boundaries, but spill over and ramify across the continents while remaining — although in a very loose sense — attached to the objects that function as material foci of their meanings and practices. The specific imagery of mankala and geomancy is primarily explored within a Neolithic context of animal husbandry, agriculture, hunting, proto-astronomy and the earth cult. The simple formal structure of mankala has tempted several archaeologists to interpret as mankala boards Neolithic cupmarked artefacts; the paper addresses the difficulties involved in such an ascription, and formulates a ritual model for the possible origin of mankala. At this point the paper foreshadows the more extensive and technical argument on cupmarks, mankala and Palaeolithic astronomy also presented in this site. In regard of the spread of geomancy and mankala in historical times, emphasis is laid on the role of Islam, the close association with kingship, and the connotations of socio-political control inherent to formal systems in general.


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Table of contents

(Part I:

1. Introduction

2. Exploring the relation between board-games and divination

2.1. Murray: from flat dismissal to reluctant acceptance

2.2. From divinatory non-ludic to ludic, through familiar objects: African examples

3. Geomancy: basic features

4. The theoretical convergence of divination and board-games

  • 4.1. What is divination?

    4.2. Board-games

    4.3. Board-games and divination compared

    4.4. Board-games and divination as formal models

    4.5. Relation to narrative literature

    4.6. The structure of time in board-games and divination

    4.7. Relation to symbolism and mathematics

  • 5. Historical problems posed by divination systems and board-games

    5.1. Appearance in human history

    5.2. The relative a-historicity of divination systems and board-games

    5.3. Basic variants of the historical relation between divination and board-games)

    Part II:

    6. Exploring the imagery of mankala and geomancy

    6.1. Neolithic production as a possible key to the imagery of mankala and geomancy

    6.1.1. animal husbandry

    6.1.2. agriculture

    6.2. Hunting

    6.3. Astronomy and astrology

    6.4. The earth cult

    7. Alternatives to the uncritical interpretation of contextless artefacts as games: The funerary context of cupmarks

    7.1. Context, practice, conjecture, and jumping to conclusions

    7.2. The archaeology of cupmarks

    7.3. A hypothetical ritual model as a possible origin of mankala

    8. The distribution and diffusion of mankala and geomancy

    8.1. Geomancy

    8.2. Mankala

    8.3. Islam and mankala

    8.4. The convergence of geomantic divination and mankala

    8.5. Mankala and kingship

    8.6. Mankala and control: or where do formal systems come from

    9. Conclusion


    List of figures

    (Part I:

    Figure 1. A West African mancala board

    Figure 2. A mancala board from Sri Lanka

    Figure 3. Chokwe divination basket

    Figure 4. A four-tablet divinatory set from Southern Africa.

    Figure 5. A Ndebele diviner-herbalist throwing his bones as a form of geomantic divination in Francistown, Botswana, 1989.

    Figure 6. Two divination chains, displaying two specific geomantic configurations, from West Africa

    Figure 7. Striking the soil in order to form a geomantic figure

    Figure. 7a. Two divination boards from West Africa

    Figure 8. Reconstruction of a typical brick with four rows of cupmarks from Ancient Mesopotamia (c. 2000-750 BCE)

    Figure 9. A game-board from Ancient Mesopotamia

    Figure 10. A specimen of the Ancient Egyptian senet game

    Figure 11. A specimen of the Ancient Egyptian mehen game)

    Part II:

    Figure 12. A grid pattern from rock art, El Castillo (Santander), Mid-Magdalénéen (12,000 BCE)

    Figure 13. A terra cotta specimen of the fifty-eight holes game, Ancient Mesopotamia

    Figure 14. Neandertal funerary stone with cupmarks, 35.000 BP

    Figure 15. The Mallia libation stone disk

    Figure 16. Distribution of the geomantic family of divination systems.

    Figure 17. Probable diffusion pattern of geomantic divination.

    Figure 18. Geographical distribution of mankala.

    Figure 19. Probable diffusion pattern of mankala.

    Figure 20. A vertical mankala-type monolith from Gada (Ethiopia)

    Figure 21. An harvest ritual in North West Africa

    Figure 22. An irrigation pattern in North West Africa

    Figure 23. A four-row mancala game board excavated at Khami, Zimbabwe (ca. 1700 CE)

    Figure 24. Ivory divining tablets excavated at Khami, Zimbabwe (ca. 1700 CE)

    6. Exploring the imagery of mankala and geomancy

    One of the most amazing features of the literature on geomancy, however large, is that hardly any author has systematically explored the imagery underlying the nomenclature of the geomantic figures and the conceptual and historical connections these suggest. By the same token, apart from a few passing references to cattle there has been hardly any attention to the underlying imagery of mankala, throughout the equally large literature on that board-game. Admittedly, in the absence of written texts spelling out that imagery for us, we need special and perhaps controversial forms of close reading of the tacit messages the material objects belonging to these two cultural systems display — but much of the study of early and exotic art revolves on this principle. What our exploration will reveal is the multi-referential complexity underlying geomancy and mankala; but that is as expected, considering that here we are dealing with formal systems which take a certain distance (not always the same) from productive activities and from the empirical proofs and refutations, in the form of demonstrable success or failure, hunger or satisfaction, they constantly offer.


    6.1. Neolithic production as a possible key to the imagery of mankala and geomancy

    If the above argument concerning the Neolithic context for the emergence of board-games and divination cuts wood (which is a much older — Palaeolithic — productive activity in human evolution, albeit that remarkable concentrations of worn axes are found on Neolithic agricultural forest clearances) it offers one of the most obvious contexts in which to interpret the specific forms and imagery of both mankala and geomancy, and thus suggests a base-line beyond which we do not have to seek for historical clues and geographical connections.

    The fundamental image of mankala is that of a series of a few (p) parallel lines on the ground, with a number (q) of demarcated and transformed spaces defined along each line (normally q>>p); identical elements are inserted and withdrawn from each of these spaces according to a fixed routine which yet invites human strategy and planning.

    6.1.1. animal husbandry

    In the existing literature there are some indications of a pastoral imagery underlying mankala (e.g. Townshend 1976-1977: 93), as if the holes are cattle kraals and the elements heads of cattle. In the simplified mankala described by Driberg (1933: 9, n. 2) the counters are called sheep and goats.

    Also Townshend (1976-76: 93) recognises the link between mankala and animal husbandry, and even speaks of a ‘mankala/ cattle/ women complex’, although the concept of a cattle complex has far less currency among anthropologists today than it had in the mid-twentieth century (cf. Herskovits 1960; de Lame 1996).

    Such an interpretation in terms of one of the Neolithic pastoral achievements has a certain appeal. Townshend’s point (1979b) that, contrary to structural-functional theoretical pronouncements (Roberts et al. 1959), board-games do occur among pastoralists, is well taken. By the same token, pastoral societies have been found (Long 1977; Edgerton c.s. 1971) to display a marked propensity for divination — perhaps associated with the need to identify stray animals, perhaps also related to the vast geographical space in which their productive ecology revolves. The use of astragali derived, hardly ever from wild animals but in most cases from domestic animals, helps to pinpoint the Neolithic context of the board-games and divination systems in which these astragali serve as dice i.e. random generators.

    Does the game-board then depict a number of non-adjacent kraal in a situation of cattle raiding? More likely, the board-game represents the peaceful and regular circulation and re-circulation of cattle such as is customary in most pastoral societies in the context of marriage payments. In the words of Sutton-Smith (1993), one of today’s principal ludologists,

    ‘It is hard to play this game [ mankala ] without the feeling that one is participating in one of those basic stages of civilisation where the accumulation of property is what is at issue’.

    Yet it is difficult to imagine adjacent cattle kraals whose contents undergo such rapid and continuous redistributions in the context of alliance.

    The circulation of cattle as against that of women is quite likely the underlying social referent of the Sudan mankala-like Umm al-banat30 game first described by Davies (1925) and summarised by Russ in the following words:

    ‘Play is on a 2x6 board (usually hollowed out of the sand) with four seeds in each hole at the start of play. Each player, at his turn, picks up all the seeds from any of his holes (except for a ‘‘daughter’’ hole) and moves in laps (...) in a counterclockwise direction until the last seed of a lap falls into an empty hole, one of the opponent’s holes that contains three seeds (the last one dropped making a ‘‘four’’), or a hole already designated as a ‘‘daughter’’. A move may not begin from a ‘‘daughter’’ hole. If the last seed of a lap falls into an empty hole on either side of the board, the move is over and no captures are made. If the last seed of a lap falls into a hole on the opponent’s side containing three seeds (thus making a ‘‘four’’), this hole is designated a ‘‘daughter’’ and is somehow marked to indicate this. After making a ‘‘daughter’’, the player’s move is over with no captures being made. If the last seed of a lap falls into a player’s own ‘‘daughter’’ which must, of course, be on his opponent’s side of the board, the player’s move is over with no captures being made. The contents of a ‘‘daughter’’ cannot at any time be picked up and moved. If the last seed of a lap falls into one of the opponent’s ‘‘daughters’’ (which will be on the player’s side of the board), this seed and one other seed are removed from the ‘‘daughter’’ and put in the player’s store. The player then moves again, beginning from any hole on his side of the board that is not a ‘‘daughter’’ hole.’ (Russ 1984: 46)

    6.1.2. agriculture

    It is equally promising to consider the holes are referring to agricultural fields. 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’être may well have been to pool resources not only against outside attach but also against internal food shortages, through pooling and redistribution —, fits the Neolithic archaeological record (and the form and rules of mankala) fairly well. 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 everywhere as neat as in the earliest forms of Sumerian and Chinese writing, where such a pattern indeed means ‘field’.


    Figure 9. A game-board from Ancient Mesopotamia

    (after Gadd 1934 [ check ] ).

    In the most archaic Sumerian writing (ca. 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,31 this was only slightly transformed into: , which ultimately led to the standard character:.32 Similarly, in Chinese (Hân Yîng Cídian 1988; cf. Wieger 1965: 316f) the character for field is: (t’ien), 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 c.s. 1956: 226). In Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic, again, the oblong grid: has the cognate meaning of ‘district’, ‘administered land area’ (Faulkner 1962: 54, 178 and passim) — which was rendered in Greek as nomós, and is generally considered to represent a (manually) irrigated field. Gilbert explicitly links the layout of Egyptian board-games with the pattern of irrigation ditches in the Egyptian agricultural landscape. Here may be an important key to the imagery of the mankala board and to other board-games.33


    Figure 10. A specimen of the Ancient Egyptian senet game

    (after Kendall 1992c).

    The landscape represented by these game-boards was produced and maintained by a very simple agricultural technology:

    ‘During the Old Kingdom and the Middle Kingdom, all a farmer (...) could do was put a yoke on his shoulders and bring the water to the fields with manpower, using a pair of wooden or earthenware buckets. (...) When fields or gardens had to be watered one divided them first into square sections by means of a grid of small dikes. Water was then poured from one section into the other, the dike retaining the water just long enough to allow it to enter into the soil. (...) Relief only came with the introduction of the shadoof at the end of the 18th dynasty. It clearly originated in Mesopotamia’ (Strouhal 1993: 97) [ retranslated WvB; better take English edition ]

    The postulated link with irrigation may not be limited to some very early Neolithic context. Irrigation was practised (Sutton 1984; Fleuret 1985) in the interior of Tanzania, and in Zimbabwe, and in both cases four-rank mankala is found.

    Nor is the agricultural imagery limited to the lay-out of the game-board. Gaming pieces, especially those for the Ancient Egyptian game of senet, have the specific shape of granaries meant for the storage of consumable grain (seed being stored in trapezoid granaries) (Strouhal 1993: 100).

    Also in geomancy one may see the many variations of the ‘art of drawing lines in the sand’ 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.

    These patterns are so widespread in the Old World, that Arabian divination practices might be better understood in the light of ancient Egyptian representations and even of customs in South East Asia. The representations on the Scorpion’s King or Ka’s maze head (Strouhal 1993: 96; Edwards 1985) were long interpreted as depicting the King’s opening an irrigation canal. However, now that we have come to realise that (beyond the individual farmer’s toil with buckets and little dikes) irrigation in Egypt was decentralised and relatively late,34 the maze-head representation is read as the king’s sanctioning the cleaving of the soil and the sowing of grain. These are the very acts which, millennia later and at the other end of the Old World, we find in South East Asia, where they must have been at the centre of agricultural ritual for a long time, probably several millennia:

    ‘La tradition des rois cloche-pied s’est conservée au Siam et au Cambodge jusqu’au XIXe siècle. Après avoir tracé un sillon (désacralisation du sol par le chef au début d’une campagne agricole), ils devaient aller s’apuyer contre un arbre et se tenir debout sur un seul pied (le pied droit placé sur le genou gauche). (Cf. Leclère, Le Cambodge, p. 297)’ (Granet 1988: 486 n. 86; italics added by me — WvB).’

    I am pointing out a parallel which is historically conceivable in the light of the (west-east) diffusion of agriculture as a human invention; but the last thing I could want to suggest is that the Arabian symbolism directly and specifically derives from South East Asian agricultural practices. The link is far more indirect. Even the Chinese I Ching35 system, which via the Basra link probably had a more direct bearing on Arabian geomancy,36 was only one of several formative influences that produced ‘ilm al-raml.

    Significant is that, whatever departure from more original forms we encounter in the context of geomantic divination, there is always the link with the ground. If the divination no longer takes place on the actual ground but in a miniature representing the earth — such as the square37 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 by covering it with a sacred cloth or skin. It is highly significant that at the beginning of the 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, particularly). Below I shall further discuss earth symbolism in geomancy.

    In the face of these reminiscences of the agricultural cycle in the geomantic diviner’s work (with the final, revelatory interpretation as harvest) we must not overlook that there are also (and this is explicitly recognised in some local cultures) remarkable parallels with other productive activities, such as spinning and weaving (like of a tale), and particularly hunting. Among the Zairian Yaka (Devisch 1987, 1991) the self image of the diviner is predominantly that of a hunter, who bags the outcome at the infinitesimal right moment, like the hunter his quarry. Much of the divinatory symbolism there is derived from the hunt, whose iconographic repertoire I shall discuss in the next section.

    The image of the manually irrigated field is illuminating for some, but not for all board-games. Thus while in senet and the ‘game of twenty fields’ the basic lay-out of the game-board visually reproduces the raised dikes and sunken, strictly rectangular and identical fields of the local countryside, this basic effect is less apparent in West Asian variants (like the royal game of Ur, or the related royal game of Knossos) due to the alternation between rectangular fields and circular or rosette-ornamented fields, and it is absent in the Ancient Egyptian, round mehen or snake game whose roughly rectangular fields are laid out spirally, as the coils of the snake after which the game was named — a universally chthonic animal, but as such only indirectly and not necessarily connected with agriculture.


    Figure 11. A specimen of the Ancient Egyptian mehen game

    (after Pierini 1992)

    The typical mankala board in its turn displays the basic rectangular grid of identical, irrigated fields. Its round and concave cupmarks however suggest a system for the storage and transport of fluids more than irrigated fields that could be the target of such fluids — a suggestion which is all the stronger in the very early (Pre-Pottery Neolithic B) so-called ‘mankala boards’ with continuous lengthways grooves connecting or skirting the holes (Simpson in press; Kirkbride et al. 1966); and while the cupmarks are the recipients of gaming pieces comparable with and often identical with agricultural seeds, the seeds do not remain there like in sown fields, but constantly circulate — as items of wealth, or as the fluids they seem to emulate.

    Whatever the prima facie relevance of Neolithic food production for the emergence of board-games and divination systems, we should not allow ourselves to be plunged into naïve oversimplifications. The overall picture sketched above must be qualified on a considerable number of points. Even where the physical appearance of the common agricultural landscape seems to be reproduced in the lay-out of the game-boards, like in senet, the attending texts and iconography of the embellishments suggests that also recourse is had to other repertoires of knowledge and meaning, which do not, or only indirectly, reflect Neolithic productive concerns; they may even not reflect any productive concerns at all.

    In general, the ludic and non-utilitarian nature of the board-games would be conducive to a superimposition of and oscillation between multiple repertoires of reference. These include mythical meanings, e.g. the number 30 also evokes the thirty judges assessing at the trial of Horus and Set, and the snake imagery underlying mehen refers to a mythical snake; when the latter acquires benefic qualities by the New Kingdom, the game falls in disuse.

    This will lead us to a discussion of hunting and of astronomy/ astrology as iconographic repertoires, while a note of the cult of the earth — of obvious relevance for a divination method which is called ‘earth divination’ (geomancy!) — provides the link with what would appear to be, after all, the most ancient and fundamental representational repertoire involves in mankala and geomancy: funerary iconography revolving on cupmarks, which goes back to Palaeolithic times. But let us first look at the impact on mancala and geomantic imagery of another Palaeolithic achievement, hunting.


    6.2. Hunting

    Food production through agriculture and animal husbandry may have made for a revolutionary redefinition of time and space — but let us not close our eyes for the temporal and spatial dimension of hunting as an earlier form of food production, and once perhaps just as much of a revolution as compared to simple food gathering, as the Neolithic revolution was as compared to hunting. Especially when using traps, hunting also involves the transformation of the natural environment in the form of bounded space (the trap as against its surroundings) and articulated time (the rhythm of inspecting, emptying and re-charging the traps; and especially the cultivation of the right infinitesimal moment, for the trap to spring or for the hunter to make the kill).

    It is of great significance that the grid image, which in Neolithic and later contexts predominantly refers to the agricultural field, abounds in Upper Palaeolithic (Magdalénéen) art, and then is generally interpreted by archaeologists as referring to traps or nets.38 Remarkably, also the prototype of the Chinese sign for field, , seems to originate in a context of hunting, where it is claimed to have represented footprints of game (Wang 1993: 61f).The grid-like pattern is of course extremely simple and so much occurs in rock art (e.g. Breuil c.s. 1954; Leroi-Gourhan 1976, 1984), vessel decoration, tattooing patterns (Marcy 1931), textile decoration etc., that there is unlikely to be one dominant iconographic interpretation. Another possible reference in the Palaeolithic context is the ladder, e.g. to approach a beehive (Pager 1975: 28). Yet another interpretation of grids is one in terms of the schematised human figure, which was advanced by Breuil (1928) and even more convincingly so by Leroi-Gourhan (1984: 468f). The latter author, who devoted his life to elucidating the representational language of the Palaeolithic, suggests that the grid may mark an advanced stage of the geometrisation typical of the Upper Palaeolithic, affecting representations of the female body (cf. Leroi-Gourhan 1976: 92, fig. 7).


    Figure 12. A grid pattern from rock art, El Castillo (Santander), Mid-Magdalénéen (12,000 BCE)

    (after Moulin 1966: 350)37a

    If the imagery of board-games and divination systems need not exclusively derive from a context of Neolithic production, but may also refer to hunting, this helps to arrive at greater precision and subtlety. My stress on the Neolithic in the preceding section of my argument has been based not on a reading of the visible iconographic forms these cultural products exhibit, but on an appreciation of the fundamental redefinition of space, time and person without which they would remain meaningless and out of place. Granted this, we should not fall into the trap (!) of assuming that between the structure of a production form, and the cultural forms associated with such a production form, a clear-cut one-to-one relationship should exist. Games emerging under conditions of Neolithic production may borrow — not only their underlying, tacit assumptions about space, time and the person but also — their symbolism and imagery from agriculture and animal husbandry. But it is equally likely that, while necessarily set within an implicit framework defined by these underlying assumptions, their explicit iconography is not excessively or even mainly taken from topical Neolithic referents but rather from other, earlier forms of production. The latter were once dominant and have subsequently been relegated to the periphery of the overall production system, where they then yield additional delicacies instead of staples, allowing producers to engage in exciting pastimes and specialisms (such as hunting and fishing) instead of day-to-day routines shared by everyone (such as tilling and herding). After all, we are dealing here with games, which are about fun and escape, not with manuals about how to be a good farmer or herdsman. Free variation, departure from everyday forms, norms and routines, and a measure of impredictability, are the hall mark of recreation as indeed they are of art and religion. 39

    With this refinement we are much better capable of accounting for the imagery of actual board games and forms of divination encountered as material objects in archaeology and museum anthropology, and illuminated, if we are lucky, by accompanying texts, practices and actors’ explanations in so far as we are dealing with ancient literate settings, and with contemporary settings open to the anthropologist’s and ludologist’s participant observation. There is no denying that, in addition to agricultural and pastoral themes, there are extensive references to hunting and fishing both in board-games and in divination (cf., e.g., the Dogon jackal oracle (Griaule 1937; Paulme 1937), and the totemic wild animals that have intruded the interpretative catalogue of the Southern African Hakata variant of geomancy). According to Montet40 references to hunting abound in the texts relating to the mehen game, to the extent even that the game is claimed to be the representation of a hunting technique.

    In the case of senet, by the New Kingdom (when it had become a major element in funerary ritual and furniture, with meaningful symbols attached, first to the final five, and ultimately to all of its thirty fields; Kendall 1992b) the iconography and accompanying texts predominantly revolve on conventionalised religious symbols such as the Djed pillar and the Isis knot, and makes minimum reference to the then current staple products of agricultural and pastoral production (one field with ‘bread’ being the main exception); by contrast, the only ecological context represented in a number of fields is the murky, liminal domain of the swamps, between land and water,41 also the scene of hunting, fishing and birding as pastimes yielding delicacies. This is the final stage in the evolution, over nearly two millennia since the oldest pre-dynastic forms of the game (already attested in the hieroglyphic representation of the earliest dynastic incumbent, King Narmer), away from whatever original productive inspiration and towards functioning in a highly ritualised funerary context.

    The hunting imagery is unmistakably relevant when we look at the board-games of the Ancient Near East. Here the agricultural imagery does not apply in all cases, and especially fails to match the Mesopotamia-derived, ‘fifty-eight holes’ game with a board shaped like an axe head,42 whose imagery (to judge by the representations on the stick-shaped game counters) in partly derived from the hunt, as is also indicated by the name adopted by today’s analysts: ‘dogs and jackals’. A reminiscence of hunting and trapping in senet can also be seen in the fact that some fields on the game-board are traps from which only under specific conditions the player can be released again. Another example is the 1st dynasty steatite lid of gaming-box with inlaid representation of dogs chasing gazelles.43


    Figure 13. A terra cotta specimen of the fifty-eight holes game, Ancient Mesopotamia

    (after [ check ] : [ add pages ] )

    A remarkable archaic feature in mankala is the fact that in many (especially African) societies women are not allowed to play the game or even to see it (cf. Driedger 1972: 9; Townshend 1976-77) — by which the game reveals itself, like sacred flutes, masks and myth, as an aspect of an initiatory complex built around a strict division of genders and age groups; the complex — although other involving representations of hunting and of spirits of the wild — however is abundantly found among agriculturalists and is not a sign of pre-Neolithic origin.

    Before we turn to another iconographic repertoire whose post-Neolithic nature is obvious, that of astronomy and astrology, a final point needs to be made about hunting. The presence of hunting imagery in board-games and divination systems whose Neolithic connotations I have above argued on a number of counts, is probably not merely a playful, nostalgic reminder of obsolete, once dominant, forms of food production. Particularly the work of Leroi-Gourhan (but building on much older insights; cf. Kuhn 1955; Marshack 1971) suggests that a tangible development toward formalisation, geometrisation, abstraction was already taking place in the Upper Palaeolithic. In other words, the Neolithic is not a total break, a total innovation, and certain feature s of hunting (perhaps the ones singled out in the opening paragraph of this section) must have helped to prepare Man for board-games and divination, for formal systems in general, perhaps for religion in the stricter sense of the word, and possibly even, to some extent, for agriculture and animal husbandry.


    6.3. Astronomy and astrology

    I conceded that board-games and divination systems may refer to iconographic repertoires which are not directly connected with production, either Neolithic or pre-Neolithic. One such a repertoire is that of astronomy and astrology, which went through an enormous expansion to reach a point, in Hellenistic and Imperial times, when astrological imagery hegemonically co-ordinated and re-interpreted most fields of symbolic production, including board-games and divination. But much earlier this repertoire was already fairly prominent.

    In Antiquity, apparatuses for astronomy and for astrological divination (the two often coincided) included calibrated boards or tables, counters and other computational aids. If we need pre-existing artefacts which could be turned into game-boards, astronomic/ astrological apparatuses and computational aids would be a likely place to look, especially since these, already in Antiquity, often degenerated into grids within which the actual position of the heavens was no longer carefully calculated, but guessed through dice.44 In view of the striking similarities between West African divinatory boards, and the ordinary waxed or sand (!) -covered writing-boards of Antiquity, the latter might also be considered as proto-divinatory and perhaps also proto-ludic. By the same token, the divining bowls used in Southern Africa are likely to be localisations (with the same shift from state-of-the art scientific apparatus to a magical application) of the Chinese load-stone compass, with the magnet replaced by a cowry (van Binsbergen, forthcoming).

    By the same token many board-games can be construed to have, among others, an astronomical or astrological reference. The grid, whose iconographic connotations with hunting and agriculture we have explored, and which is the basic pattern for the kind of structuration of space effected by the lay-out of the board-game, appears in Late Babylonian magic as the cuneiform representation of the constellations (Reiner 1995).45

    Taking on these astronomical elements, board-games certainly reflect a Neolithic concern with time reckoning and determining the correct time for planting, but the imagery is no longer agricultural.

    The thirty fields in senet, while on the outside reminiscent of irrigated fields, were conceived by their Ancient Egyptian players, not as agricultural fields, nor (with the exception of one or two specific cases on the board) as traps, but as houses, peru. There is a strong indication that these thirty houses represent the lunar mansions, the successive astronomical day-by-day locations of the moon against the fixed stars in its revolution around the earth.

    A conceptual link can be surmised between the field and the stars: for the field is not exclusively a useful patch of soil, it also stands out as the most conspicuous way in which man imposes his imprint on nature and thus creates order, culture, out of chaos:

    ‘For the cosmos has been won from the chaos that still surrounds it, as a cultivated plot from the encompassing wilderness’ (Fontenrose 1980: 219).46

    The game-board signifies both aspects, food and order, and as such can be said to be a veritable symbol of the world (Fink 1966). Thus we can understand how, around the turn of the first millennium CE, the Greek lexicographer Suidas defined the word tábla (‘backgammon’):

    ‘C’est le nom d’un jeu inventé par Palamède, alors que l’armée des Grecs était rassemblée. Il n.est pas sans portée philosophique, car le tablier (tábla) est l’image du Cosmos; les douze cases (doodeka kasoi) sont les douze signes du zodiaque; le cornet à jeter les dés (pseefóbolon), dans lequel figurent les sept points (ta hepta kokkia, en additonant les points de faces opposées) sont les sept planètes; la tour (púrgos)47 c’est le zénith, d’où tout descend vers nous, bonheur et malheur.’ (Becq de Fouquières 1869: 382)

    6.4. The earth cult

    A final symbolic repertoire, obviously overlapping with that of agriculture and the stars, but of such great antiquity and significance that it deserves to be considered as a referential complex in its own right, is that of the earth and its cult. We are dealing here with one of the most powerful symbols that Man has developed. Its antiquity is suggested not only by its ubiquity,48 but also by the way in which the earth appears as a fundamental, independent moral category in myths, oaths and rituals from Mesopotamia, Greek and Roman Antiquity, West and East Africa, while the pacifist marabouts of North West Africa, administrators of collective oaths by saints associated with local shrines, may also be considered land priests in Islamic garb.49

    Many layers of reference are piled up here, making for a multi-referential coding whose co-ordinates in space and time are typically complex and confused, but together elucidating the implied symbolism and the possible original inspiration of geomancy in particular, and more implicitly of board-games.

    There is 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, mud, dirt, pebbles, as the lowly (psychoanalytically 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 (symbolised by Osiris) as against the barren desert (symbolised by Set), which was how Ancient Egyptians conceptualised their country — and an inspiration (besides the moon’s phases and the hemerology of lucky and unlucky days) for the binary symbolism underlying e.g. geomancy.

    There is earth with its four cardinal directions (essentially derived from the specific symmetry structure of the human body: left and right, back and front, which makes for square representations (reproduced in many square game-boards), rectangular grids as subdivisions, and in general a preponderance of the figure 4 or higher powers of 2 (Pennick 1992).

    There is earth as the time-less repository of the dead, as the underworld or the gate to the underworld, hence the alternative source of power, knowledge, legitimacy of political and ritual office.

    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 (e.g. Exodus 7: 8-12 on Aaron’s rod, and Exodus 17 on water from the rock), 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’’...’50

    Here the magician is speaking, in all likelihood, not only to the earth but also on behalf of the earth, thus asserting the latter’s powers as the Great Mother, which despite repeated attempts in many later religions was never completely deprived of its divine nature and never completely subjugated to ethereal gods who literally represent the more advanced levels of sublimation.

    Seeking to do justice to the complexity and heterogeneity of the referential repertoire underlying mankala and geomancy, we have now managed to dissolve an initially elegant and original argument about Neolithic production, and put in its place a model characterised by fragmentation and accretion of layer upon layer from heterogeneous repertoires. The sense of reality of my analysis may thus be considerably enhanced, but our sense of grasping essentials has greatly diminished in the process. Before we leave the discussion of imageries and origins behind and consider the careers of subsequent mankala and geomancy in space and time, let me make one final attempt to identify, under all this fragmentation, the probably fundamental and unique base-line.

    I must start with a methodological discussion.



    7. Alternatives to the uncritical interpretation of contextless artefacts as games: The funerary context of cupmarks

    7.1. Context, practice, conjecture, and jumping to conclusions

    Before World War II, when Huizinga wrote his seminal Homo ludens, he could still claim that anthropology and kindred sciences reserved too little room for the concept of play (Huizinga 1952: viii). Meanwhile, however, cultural history and archaeology, more than mainstream anthropology, have discovered games as a fertile topic. Any artefact now risks to be interpreted in ludic terms, just like a generation ago the classification as ‘magic object’ or ‘ritual object’ was so standard that one could wonder how, with all this magic and ritual, people in the past still found the time to produce and consume their food and, indeed, how they recreated and adorned themselves.

    The problem of identifying an object as ludic is (once we have defined what we mean by ‘game’) is largely one of context:

  • • the unique context in which an artefact which could be interpreted as a game-board or gaming piece, is found amidst other contemporary artefacts;

    • the repetitive, systematic context provided, for any single newly found artefact, by earlier finds which the scholarly community has already agreed to consider as ludic; as well as by other finds which while similar in appearance and spatio-temporally related to the object in question, are arguably interpreted as other than ludic; and thirdly

    • the interpretative context provided, in relatively few cases, by our explicit detailed knowledge concerning the actual human practices and textual evidence attending the artefacts in question or similar objects.

  • The paucity of our data and the relative infancy of ludology have sometimes forced us to propose interpretations which, however plausible in substance, do severely tax our common assumptions on historical continuity and change. For instance when the mehen game is interpreted in the light of present-day ludic practices in a Sudan village (Pierini 1992; Corcelle-Bellessort 1991), one appeals to the possibility of continuity across three or four millennia and a distance of a thousand kilometres or more. When the Assyriologist Finkel (1992, 1995) claims to have found the rules for the royal game of Ur at the back of a Seleucid cuneiform tablet dealing with fortune-telling, there is a presumed continuity at stake across 2600 years (more years than separate us today from Seleucid times!), not to mention geographical distance. If these spectacular claims are rightly welcomed as fruits of serious scholarship, this is not only because of the authors’ established reputation and experience, but also because it is beyond any doubt that, at both ends of the comparison that constitutes each case, we are dealing with a board-game, which by comparison with other similar pieces, by texts and by recorded practices is proven to be just that. Moreover, such extreme claims of historical continuity are less extravagant once we realise that board-games are exceptionally a-historical and impervious to change.

    But what about cases when we cannot be so sure that we are dealing with board-games?

    The fundamental problem is that we are tempted to assign a specific cultural practice to an object, under conditions where the full range of possible practices is unknown, and the theoretical reasons for matching a particular object with a particular practice are largely lacking. In this respect the present study (and most of my other comparative and synthetic work) has primarily a theoretical aim: not so much to establish origins, lines of evolution, linkages, involving specific board-games and divination systems, but to suggest a heuristic network of possible systematic connections within which specific hypotheses along all these lines could be inspired, formulated, and put to the test. An explicit and well-grounded refutation of anything I have to say in this paper would suit my purpose eminently — and would greatly enhance our understanding, not only of board-games but also of global cultural processes, and the history of formal systems.

    Meanwhile the difficulties are immense. Once a researcher knows that a family of board-games called mankala exists, this enables him to identify individual finds with such features as a mankala board, adding to an otherwise contextless find the context of an arguably related series of similar objects from elsewhere and from different time horizons. However, in the light of Murray’s excellent point that the first game-boards were likely to be pre-existing non-gaming objects put to a gaming purpose, such a simple classification will never allow us to identify the historical antecedents of mankala boards; for whenever these present themselves to us, they are already spuriously classified as mankala boards and their potential contribution to the construction of a genetic sequence is lost.

    On this point again the available literature shows considerable power of imagination. Any slabs which display regular arrays of cupmarks tend to be paraded as ancient mankala boards. But the alternative, spoil-sport, yet methodologically preferable, position is that we are dealing with non-ludic or proto-ludic artefacts unless there is unmistakable evidence as to a gaming context and practice.


    7.2. The archaeology of cupmarks

    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 cupmarks. The latter set is much larger, much more varied, has a much wider distribution in space and time, and is likely to include artefact which, while not yet mankala boards themselves, constituted the non-ludic prototypes for such boards.


    Figure 14. Moustéréen funerary stone with cupmarks, c. 35.000 BCE.

    (after Levy 1948: 66, as based on Capitan & Peyrony 1921).

    Among Upper Palaeolithic and later rock art, cupmarks occur perhaps as frequently as grid marks. The oldest evidence meanwhile is from a Neanderthal (Moustérien) grave at La Ferrassie (Dordogne, France), c. 35,000 BP, where in a stone covering a body, and remarkably facing down to the earth and the dead, a number of cupmarks was discovered.51 Levy adduces several more examples, tracing the pattern through to more recent times (cf. Noy 1979; Morris & Milburn 1977). She writes:

    ‘Their meaning to Neanderthal man cannot be conjectured,52 but throughout their prolonged history they are connected with funeral rites.’

    A ritual use is often attributed to them, in the way of offerings, libation or anointment. They may occur singly or in groups, sometimes in aligned groups reminiscent of certified mankala boards.

    Cupmarks are a regular feature in Neolithic and bronze age ritual contexts, where they often appear on altars or ‘libation stones’. A typical arrangement is that of a number (often seven) of smaller holes arranged around one large central hole; it is found in many parts the Eastern Mediterranean and West Asia over a period of several millennia right into historic Ancient Greece, where it is called kérnos (Gross 1979). [ dat gaat wel erg snel; de kernos heeft wel formeel dezelfde structuur maar dat zijn geen cupholes in rock, maar is aardewerk!! ] Some randomly chosen examples of this admittedly heterogeneous class of objects include the offering table of Defdji or Djefda, Egypt, Old Kingdom;53 a four-legged granary-shaped composite vase consisting of seven smaller basins and one larger basin, from Melos, Cyclades, c. 2000 BCE;54 the altar with seven rectangular holes on the sit shamshi bronze model of a morning ritual, Elam, c. 1125 BCE.55 As far as I am aware, examples of this genre are not conspicuous in Ancient Mesopotamia proper (for an alternative see below), but Sir Leonard Woolley’s cupmarked bricks, for which Murray could not think of any use other than as game-boards, might have been mass-produced ‘libation stones’ as well. The number of minor holes may be considerably larger, like that on the Mallia libation stone disk (Ø 90 cm), which has 33 small holes and one larger hole around the rim, with in the centre a large hole surrounded by a concentric groove.56 To these examples many more could be added. Ceremonial cosmetic ‘palettes’, with their characteristic central cupmark, are likely to be related to this overall class of objects.

    No doubt a variety of ritual functions can be attributed to these various vessels, and it would be rash to claim that over such a vast area and long period the same idea would have underlain the use of such lapidary vessels with multiple cupmarks — unless in a very general and vague sense. All the same, this material indicates that throughout the region where the earliest so-called ‘mankala boards’ were excavated, ritual vessels existed displaying an orderly array of identical holes capable of containing liquids, a function later partly diversified (for instance in the Greek case) into the carrying of granulated solids, e.g. as first fruit offerings. ( For a far more extensive and profound discussion of cupmarks and related topics, cf. my Web-book on Cupmarks, mankala and archaeoastronomy.)


    Figure 15. The Mallia libation stone disk

    (after Buchholz & Karageorghis 1973: pl. 61a, b)

    If this type of vessel is rather lacking in the Ancient Mesopotamian and Hittite context, a functional equivalent may be recognised in the sacrificial procession — one of the major themes of sculptural, glyptic and ornamental representation — , where a number of officiants each carry a single vessel of sacrificial fluid (beer, particularly); their multiplicity may reflect various ritual or political offices or sections of the community or realm, thus expressing the various segments of the socia unit which is constituted and legitimated by the ritual offering.

    It is tempting to link the cupmark theme, with its Palaeolithic and funerary connotations, to that of the circle-and-dot motif, which also has a very wide if patchy distribution, ranging from Nordic, circumpolar ivory-working to Celtic, Hittite and general Ancient Near East contexts (Segy 1953). In Sumerian contexts the distinctive feature of what Assyriologists have called the ‘Eye Goddess’ largely coincides with the circle-and-dot motif. Besides the enduring contemplation by the worshippers it may indicate the introduction, and subjugation, of an earlier domestic cult of ancestors, in the domain of a later, more centrally institutionalised and universal deity. The motif’s distribution area further extends to ritual contexts in sub-Saharan Africa, especially those related to the ancestral cult. In the iconography of the Southern African Hakata form of geomancy, a circle-and-dot motif often replaces the house icon in the senior female tablet (cf. Figure 4).

    Much more typological and comparative ritual research is needed before we can arrive at conclusions. Meanwhile I submit that in the class of ritual vessels and slabs with multiple cup-marks we have found a non-ludic ritual context from which proto-mankala may have derived at least as plausibly as from the agricultural and pastoral context.

    I would go even further and suggest that the early so-called mankala boards from the Near East and East Africa belong to the same family of cupped stones, and may again be nothing but non-ludic or proto-ludic. Calling them ‘mankala boards’ is begging the question.


    7.3. A hypothetical ritual model as a possible origin of mankala

    In the light of this reasoning, one would no longer claim that, in general, board-games sprang from divination systems, but stress that they have probably a common origin in archaic ritual. Whatever multi-layered accretion of symbolism mankala may have taken on later, when we view the game-board as another variety of cupped stones this suggests an original context of funerary or commemorative ritual. This would generally have revolved around the offering, to the dead (and by extension to the spirits of the underworld, to the earth, or to heroes and gods associated with these beings), food stuffs or simulacrums of food stuffs, both fluids (including beer, milk, blood, perhaps meat stock) and solids (grains, meat, bread etc.).

    Why was not just one vessel or one cupmark enough, why the multiplicity of holes or containers without which there would be no mankala?

    One possibility (which was actual practice in Ancient Egypt and much later in the Eleusinian cult in Ancient Greece) is that the one offering had to be composed of a considerable variety of food stuffs, in order to suggest respect and generosity, perhaps also in order to make of the offering a mirror-image of the cosmos in its variegated complexity. This however leaves us to explain why there should be distribution and redistribution between holes.

    I would instead suggest a sociological explanation, another version of Durkheim’s perhaps, whose defective theory of magic was compensated by a genial insight in the nature of religion as a group affair. Perhaps the multiplicity of cupmarks, much like the multiplicity of officiants in the sacrificial procession, has to do with the familiar phenomenon57 that smaller constituent segments in a wider society tend to express their identity by reference to specific bonds with particular shrines and gods, in a context where these have proliferated even when taken from the overall national pantheon. Ritual is among other things a way of producing group coherence. If funerary ritual is important for the group or organisation to constitute itself, one could do so by venerating only one ancestor or one deity through one offering. Given the internal segmentation, however (not only of a court and a city, but also of agricultural and pastoral societies, even at the level of the smallest constituent social units, through the constant influx of strangers — in-marrying women, herdsmen, priests and craftsmen — who at least initially cannot identify with that one ancestor or deity), cohesion may be more easily achieved by directing the cult at a number of ancestors/ deities, or by letting the various recognised segments each articulate their distinct identity and at the same time their merging into the whole by each bringing their own part of the common sacrifice. Multiplicity of cupmarks then stands for a multiplicity of ancestors of deities and ultimately for the multiplicity of internal segments; and circulation of gifts from one cupmark to the other might then be a further expression of this ritual merging.

    These funerary connotations could easily be combined with calendrical ones, defining the proper times for commemoration and offering. This is may be the reason why mankala is still played not only in funerary contexts but also at times of special calendrical significance. From here also the link with the cult of the earth and of fertility can easily be made: the earth is where the dead are buried but also where (as the dead people’s gift?) the food stuffs for the offering come from — as soon as one has agriculture. Cult of the dead, of the earth, of fertility and of agriculture shade over into each other. Townshend (1979a: 127, n. 5) therefore has a point when he suggest that mankala ‘probably originated in some form of fertility cult’. The foodstuffs in the cupmarks would represent the food-stuffs on the ground: grains, beans — the typical pieces both in mankala and in cleromantic divination.

    Indeed, this model, while strictly hypothetical, helps us to appreciate the emergence of certain forms of divination as a sister, rather than as a parent, of board-games. The contact with the earth is a contact with the dead as well as with the source of food. If through offerings one could maintain a relationship with the dead and the gods, the minute details attending these offerings in each specific case (of course, after being surrendered by the living and therefore consecrated to the supernatural) might also contain the clues as to the desires and intentions of these invisible interaction partners — and the apparatus would be read to pick up those clues. In this connexion it is illuminating to recall the existence of ‘divination by means of a sacred (offertory?) table’, attested in Ancient Greece, and in physical appearance close to our emerging picture of the use of cupped boards in funerary offerings:

    ‘les pierres, les fèves, les baguettes taillées, les osselets, les dés, toutes les formes de cléromancie par jet ou tirage au sort doivent être classées dans la trapézomancie, pourvu qu’elles dépendent de l’usage d’une table particulière’ (Le Scouézec et al. 1965: 144; cf. Bouché-Leclerc 1879: i 191f).


    8. The distribution and diffusion of mankala and geomancy

    Having thus established, and duly qualified, the early context in which mankala and geomancy may have emerged, and having explored the parameters within which the multi-layered imagery of these cultural systems may begin to be understood, let us now turn to the distribution and diffusion of these cultural systems in later periods.


    8.1. Geomancy



    [ insert legend as in virtuality piece ]

    Figure 16. Distribution of the geomantic family of divination systems.


    • [add text ]

    Figure 17. Probable diffusion pattern of geomantic divination.

    legend: as previous diagram [ check ]

    The available evidence allows us to map the geographical distribution of the geomantic family as in Figure 16, as a basis for the reconstruction of its geographical diffusion in Figure 17.58 From our above discussion one would prefer to approach the history of geomancy along three, not necessarily coinciding, lines: the history of the random-generating apparatus (which is often strictly local and reflects local technology and symbolism); the history of the coding procedures and that of the interpretative catalogue — the latter two being more universal and often supported and standardised by literacy. However, our present scope only allows a combined treatment of these features.

    According to the current state of historical reconstructions, the Hellenic, Hellenistic, Hermetic, Jewish, Persian, African, Indian and Chinese borrowings59 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 (probably Basra) in an Isma’ili context in the tenth century CE. The Indian Ocean trade took care of any spread from China to the Persian Gulf; the land route via the Silk Road appears to have been less important in this exchange. After the geomantic system was formulated in Islamic circles, the Indian Ocean was again the main context for its broadcasting. Meanwhile, the system’s rapid and successful spread over the Arabic and Jewish intellectual world, and hence into Europe, Africa and the Indian Ocean region, was largely due to its re-formulation (in a famous and much circulated treatise known, among other titles, as Kitab al-fasl fi usul ‘ilm al-raml) by the Berber shaykh Muhammad al-Zanati, who probably lived in the early thirteenth century CE: He is considered a contemporary of 13th-century geomancer al-Munadjdjim, and his treatise on geomancy was translated into Greek verse, from the Persian, by the monk Arsenius in 1266 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, and by the prominence of proto-mankala and proto-geomantic cultural forms in the latter-day North West African material, to which I shall come back below. Yet the latter-day Ifa, Fa, and ‘Sixteen Cowries’ in West Africa derive directly from the Arabian prototypes.

    Above I stressed, in general, the importance of the mathematical aspect of board-games and divination. Their underlying mathematical structure can be a most effective pointer to otherwise hidden relationships, because this structure may well survive regardless of the transformations the systems go through at the surface. Thus a careful examination of the binary, 2k pattern dominating the 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 (including the well-studied Sikidy system at Madagascar) led me to hypothesise historical connections which could subsequently be ascertained when I found identical items in the interpretative catalogues attending the divination system in these two more or less adjacent regions. It turned out that the four horizontal lines of the standard geomantic symbols (e.g. ), where each line can take two values (uneven or even, one dot or two), was redefined as four tablets, whether each tablet can take two values (obverse or reverse); in the process, the attending Arabian interpretative catalogue was partly maintained (it is still very conspicuous in the Madagascar and Comoro Islands variants), partly localised.


    8.2. Mankala



    [ add text ]

    Figure 18. Geographical distribution of mankala.

    inset: distribution of the dara game



    Figure 19. Probable diffusion pattern of mankala.

    legend: as previous diagram

    Figure 18 summarises the world distribution of mankala (broken down into two-, three and four-row varieties of the game), while Figure 19 suggests the underlying pattern of diffusion.60

    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 even their distribution in Asia should be directly derived from African models alleged to be recently imported to South Asia by black slaves. Already twenty years ago he complained (Townshend 1976-77: 95) that everyone (except Leakey61) seemed to be 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:

  • ‘The conclusions I personally draw from all this are:
  • Townshend’s comparative research on mankala remains impressive for its dextrous and subtle handling of the enormous literature, which includes several brilliant part analyses for distinct regions and variants. This demonstrates the analytical advantage of comparatively handling formal systems whose mathematical properties are so well defined and so easily classified. Yet, in addition to his emotional Afrocentrism inspired by a condescending desire for political correctness,62 there are other theoretical and methodological flaws in his argument. Out of every minute variant of the mankala game he makes a separate genus, with its own logic and history presumed to be unique and without intersections with the other genera, as if the parallel invention, in various parts of the world, of minor variations in the rules, on the basis of reception of the overall package, is entirely out of the question. And contrary to the diffusionist law of the preservation of archaic forms in the periphery of a geographical distribution, he claims that the origin of the game must be sought at the place where the rules are most elaborate and where most variants occur. What would happen to our understanding of early Christian church history, or of the origin of Indo-European languages, or of wheeled traction, or printing, or the magnetic compass, if this view were adopted? It would make the North Atlantic region, where today the elaboration and variation on all these points is extreme, the unique origin of human culture. Is that what we want?

    Townshend’s view concerning the exclusively and intrinsically Black African origin of mankala is misleading. It forces him to manipulate the data. He has to close his eyes for such evidence as I have discussed above 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: 186)
  • Moreover he has to deny that the Ancient Egyptian examples are mankala boards, not because context and information on the attending practices is lacking (that would be an excellent point to make, and sums in fact up my own position in the matter), but simply because they are too early to fit his Afrocentric hypothesis; and he has to propose an unrealistically late date for the Ceylon artefacts, which he does accept as being genuine mankala.

    Figure 20. A vertical mankala-type monolith from Gada (Ethiopia)

    (after Zavslavsky 1990: 126, as based on Jensen 1936).

    How do we escape from this dead end, without resorting to the stratagem of simply calling a mankala board everything that has straight rows of cup-marks and that suits our theory? How can we make the best of the by now substantial archaeological evidence, both from the Near East and from Eastern Africa, concerning regular rows of cupmarks in stone slabs, steles and rock faces? The East African examples are very difficult to date and may be Neolithic but then again they may be Iron Age. Their vertical placement defies their being actually or finally used as mankala boards. And although we can always interpret this vertical position as a result of recycling, for funerary purposes (as grave slabs), of pre-existing proper game-boards to be initially used in a horizontal position (cf. Simpson, in press), the devastating antiquity of funerary cup-marks in human history suggests otherwise. Situating this material against the background of cupmarks, cupped altars, kérnoi, sacrificial processions etc. as discussed above, the following conclusion presents itself. These mankala-like stone slabs from relatively independent corners of what now looks as one extended Asian-African Fertile Crescent teeming with the Neolithic productive revolution, are nothing more but evidence that by that time indeed suitable non-ludic material was available for the emergence of the mankala game as an expression of a revolutionised sense of time, space and the person. We are back at Murray’s point concerning the necessary availability of suitable non-ludic artefacts waiting to be put to a ludic purpose. The mankala game still had to crystallise out, but it was around the corner.

    The geographical parameters of the Fertile Crescent were formulated (Breasted 1935) before it was generally realised that in Africa, both in the once fertile central Sahara and in the Ethiopian highlands, independent neolithic domestication of crops and livestock had taken place (Camps 1982; Phillipsen 1985). I am therefore inclined, with Townshend (who can judge the archaeological record just as little as I can) and with the palaeontologist Leakey, to view the East African archaeological evidence on rows of cupmarks in this light. Combining this with the evidence on Neolithic mankala-like objects from Egypt, Jordan and Cyprus, we can see that any strict distinction between Africa and Asia becomes irrelevant and misleading: the Neolithic transformation process presumably producing mankala touched parts of both continents, as did the attending linguistic processes which were to lead to the rise of the Afroasiatic language family. Thus mankala did not spring from ‘Africa’ anymore than it sprung from ‘Asia’: it was produced in the Fertile Crescent, a concept to be redefined so as to stretch deeply into North West and North East Africa, and straddling both continents.

    Although so far North West Africa has yielded no archaeological evidence of mankala-type finds, I would certainly include this part of Africa here, and not merely because it also took part in independent domestication of plants and livestock. North West Africa stands out as an interesting area for a further exploration of a possible original African contribution to mankala and geomancy Here ritual and divination offer many converging examples of grid-based procedures. One instance is jackal divination (Griaule 1937; Paulme 1937), where in the evening the soil is divided by 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; the interpretational catalogue used is remotely reminiscent of geomancy. Another example concerns the harvest ritual as described by Pâques (1964), and which is locally depicted 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 21). In addition to an actual description of a mankala-type game (1964: 91), Pâques also presents (1964: 83) intriguing diagrams of patterns of irrigation in arid circum-Saharan communities, which almost read as descriptions of mankala (Figure 22). As far as hints of possible formative influences upon both mankala and geomancy, 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 21. An harvest ritual in North West Africa

    (after Pâques 1964: 157).

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

    Figure 22. An irrigation pattern in North West Africa

    (after Pâques 1964: 82).

    But we should add, to the increasingly discredited argument of origins, an argument of subsequent maturation. 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 cultural systems owe much of their latter-day form, spread and success to the Islamic connexion: by decisively re-formulating this material in terms of a fully-fledged board-game and as the, strongly astrological, divination system of khatt al-raml, — and by putting the effective and pervasive vehicle of Islam and Islam-oriented trading at the disposal of both geomancy and mankala as a main vehicle of spread. But on this point a further discussion is required, to which we now turn.


    8.3. Islam and mankala

    While Islam and Arabian culture in general was undeniably the vehicle of spread of geomancy after its first formulation in an Islamic context by the end of the 1st millennium CE, scholars are less in agreement on the relation between Islam and for mankala.

    When Murray adopted the Arabic name for this family of board-games, this was on excellent grounds.

    At the end of the nineteenth century, Bent (1969: 85f) was convinced of an Arab connection, but the very phrasing of his text reveals such anti-African bias (including the later hotly debated claim of a non-African inspiration for the Zimbabwe ruins) that we can hardly accept his authority:

    ‘In short, wherever Arabian influence has been felt this game in some form or other is always found, and forms for us another link in the chain of evidence connecting the Mashonaland ruins with an Arabian influence. The Makalangas are also far superior to other neighbouring Kaffir races in calculating, probably owing to the influence of this very game.’

    A similar stress on the role of Islam (but without the racialist overtones) was laid by Luschan (1906, 1919) and more recently by Bell:

    ‘Boards have been found in Arabia dating from the time of Muhammad [ check how Bell spells this name ] , and the followers of the prophet carried variations of the game to the countries influenced by their culture.’ (Bell 1960: 113).

    The evidence which Murray cites concerning mankala on the Balkan and the Greek islands would be a case in point, since this part of Europe was partially Islamised under the Ottoman Empire since the middle of the second millennium CE.

    Townshend (1976-77, 1979) is opposed to this emphasis on Islam and Arabian culture, and not only because of his Afrocentrism, but also for concrete distributional reasons: the pastoral, Arabian-associated presence in the northern half of Africa is — in his view — primarily characterised by other types of board-games than mankala, so that mankala is hardly found in some of the most strongly Arabianised parts of Africa (North Africa, northern Nigeria). We have already seen that he underestimates the positive evidence on mankala in Islamic North West Africa. But probably the case is more complex. In the Maghreb the Arab identity for centuries has sought to dominate an older substratum of West Atlantic continuities linked with the cult of the earth, megaliths, irrigation practices, and the Berber languages; it is quite likely that here mankala became a boundary marker between an Berber identity (pursuing the game e.g. in the zig variant) and an Arabianising identity rejecting the game even though in the Middle East it has strong Arabian connotations.63

    Dismissing the Arab connection, Townshend postulates a special link between mankala and the intra-lacustrine Bantu area, but not with the more westerly proto-Bantu area, and even does not rule out the possibility (quoting Kidd 1904: 338, who refers to a ‘Hottentot’ i.e. Khoi origin) of four-rank mankala being an invention of pre-Bantu hunters in East Africa. My discussion, below, of the links between four-rank mankala and geomancy suggests, by contrast, a fairly recent (after 1500 CE) emergence of the four-rank variety in East Africa. In the light however of my discussion of the Neolithic including pastoral context of board-games and divination in general, the idea of some Khoi connexion (albeit not with four-row mankala but with older, simpler forms of the game) may be very much to the point. The pastoral Khoi have long been accepted as descendants of Africa’s Neolithic pastoralists, and the latter’s migrations east and south provide a likely vehicle for the spread of earlier forms of mankala (two-row and three-row) across the African continent. In rather the same vein (considering the Neolithic role of Ethiopian) Avelot (1906, 1908) considers the mankala game to originate from Ethiopia and hence to have been brought to West Africa by pastoralists.

    Others again (Jones 1964: 198f; Béart 1955) claim diffusion from Madagascar and ultimately Indonesia, which may apply to specific East African variants but can be dismissed as an overall explanation of provenance in view of a whole bundle of reasons: the late date scholars are now beginning to prefer with regard to the Indonesian migrations to Madagascar (6th-13th century AD; cf. Adelaar 1994), i.e. largely overlapping with Arabian and Persian migrations to the same island; Abu’l Faradj’s contemporary reference to the game in a context where Indonesia does not come in; and the archaeological evidence on forerunners of mankala from the extended Fertile Crescent including parts of Africa.

    8.4. The convergence of geomantic divination and mankala

    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, 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 mystically-inclined sister, geomancy, in penetrating Indonesia and the Philippines. But whereas geomancy, in the form of I Ching, has been a very old and central (although not necessarily indigenous)64 part of the culture of China as a whole, it is only in Southern China that we encounter mankala.

    Within the African continent, this convergence is also to be found at the regional level. As a detailed study of the iconography and the interpretative catalogue of the four tablets indicates,65 geomantic divination has reached Southern Africa via a corridor (for many centuries an important trade route, along which notions of more or less divine kingship, Asian trade goods against gold and cattle, and Indonesian as well as — much later — Islamic cultural influences travelled) linking Tanzanian and Mozambican groups like the Konde to the Shona-speaking groups on the highlands of Zimbabwe, and from there on to Sotho/ Tswana speaking groups to the south and west of Zimbabwe. 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. 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 existing two- and three-row variants, or, finally

    • it was the classic four-line geomancy (‘Ilm al-raml ) which produced both the four-tablet geomancy and the four-row mankala.

    My hypothesis is that four-row mankala was created among the East African coast in the course of the present, second millennium CE on the basis of the combined inspiration of locally already available two-row mankala, and geomancy (whose late 1st millennium CE origin we can convincingly argue on the basis of Arabic and Hebrew documents) coming in on the vehicle of Islam; and that from there mankala was diffused westward. Of course it remains possible that the prominence of the number four both in East African mankala (bao) and in geomancy (particularly in the Southern African tablet form, whose northernmost and presumably earliest form can be traced to the Mozambican Konde corridor) is purely accidental, or simply goes back to cosmological symbolism — most Old World cultures and languages distinguishing four cardinal directions as a pivotal element in their cosmology. In any case, my hypothesis runs counter to Townshend’s (1979: 127) hypothesis, which claims that the process went into the opposite direction, so that to a region never known for its independent impact on African cultural history, around Lake Malawi, falls the honour — according to Townshend — of having inspired the Swahili coast (with its rich and long-standing hybridisation of African and Asian cultures) to its most popular and complex recreational achievement, four-row mankala.

    But perhaps this particular bit of my argument, although its original inspiration, is by now a red herring, since the various Asian indications for four-row cup-marks reminiscent of mankala suggest that that variety is much older than geomancy, whose Arabian formulation is a mere thousand years old. If the scanty evidence from Ur, Carchemish and the Indus is anything to go by, four-range mankala could have spread quite early to the East African coast, which was an established part of the Indian Ocean trade system.


    8.5. Mankala and kingship63a

    Overlooking the literature on mankala in Africa, one is surprised how often the game occurs in a context of kingship, for instance in Zaire, Rwanda, West Africa.66 Also in the aristocratic context of the Zimbabwean Khami ruins (ca. 1700 CE) a four-row mankala board was excavated, along with our oldest archaeological evidence of a divinatory set of four tablets.


    Figure 23. A four-row mancala game board excavated at Khami, Zimbabwe (ca. 1700 CE)

    (after Robinson 1959: plate xxvii)


    Figure 24. Ivory divining tablets excavated at Khami, Zimbabwe (ca. 1700 CE); the carving style, especially of the piece extreme right, displays continuity both with western Indian Ocean and (cf. Nettleton 1984) with contemporary local, Shona wood-carving

    (after Robinson 1959: plate v).

    Perhaps by analogy with legends claiming a courtly origin for chess, and its subsequent diffusion in a framework of medieval chivalry, the link between mankala and African kingship has often been accounted for in terms of a royal pastime, by which kings rendered splendour to their courts. More to the point would be that by such conspicuous waste of time as a board-game involves, they could articulate themselves (cf. van Binsbergen 1992) as not engaging in productive activities but solely living on tribute. Other considerations attach themselves to this argument. The implicit link with irrigation (but, as far as I know, not with iron-working) suggests the game to be an attribute of Culture Heroes (represented by the king, who is often considered their descendant) alleged to have introduced (imported or invented) the essentials of civilisation, including agriculture. As a royal attribute, the mankala board is especially comparable with royal instruments (xylophones, drums) which in many parts of Africa constitute the king’s standard, and whose introduction is often also attributed to the founding Culture Hero. In this respect Jones’s (1964) claim that mankala and xylophones have the same distribution in Africa (although rather equivocal in view of the virtual ubiquity of mankala) may yet have a deeper significance.

    Further perspectives open up here. First, early African kings seem to have been ritual guardians of the soil rather than politically and militarily powerful figures;67 their main source of power lay in cosmological myth and ritual (which gave them a unique place in society, and a basis for conflict regulation), and in their being foci of redistribution of food. Both elements can be seen to converge on the mankala board, which at a level of deep structure we can identify as an image of redistribution as well as an image of the cultivated soil, even if the actors’ conscious conceptualisation in the local cultures in which mankala occurs, may lay uneven stress on these two aspects and adduce other aspects e.g. pastoral, hunting and astronomical elements.68 Secondly, there are indications that the above form of kingship, with its ceremonial culture and attributes, was not independently re-invented time and time again in all the many parts of Africa where it was found in historic times. Instead, a prolonged and complex process can be postulated of chains — often broken and displaced, and with none of the unilineal compulsion of the Egyptianising diffusionism supported by scholars in the first decades of the twentieth century — of local innovatory responses to the diffusion of a package consisting of elements of political, ceremonial and economically productive culture, and demographic immigration of specialists carrying those elements. Mankala may often have been part of that (ill-defined, and protean) package.


    8.6. Mankala and control: or where do formal systems come from

    If African kings relied at first primarily on ritual, rather than political, economic and military power, their close association with mankala finally brings us to issues of social hierarchy and power, which otherwise may have been rather underplayed in the course of my argument. It is true that I have done little with the fact that board-games (however formally similar to divination sessions) construct the players as opponents, as people in conflict. Board-games’ and divination systems’ persistence over time and relative imperviousness to local cultural orientations, constitute well-established empirical facts. But does the explanation of those facts primarily lie, as I suggest in the present study, in these cultural item’s formal and ludic nature, in the technology of the object form they have taken? Or does the explanation lie, as Morris Bloch (e.g. 1992) has argued — much like I myself did in earlier work (van Binsbergen 1981) — for the (comparable, even partly overlapping) case of ritual, in these formal systems’ contribution to the raising of authority and power relationships to a plain of immutable transcendence. In other words, is their formalisation less neutral and less innocent than admirers of formalisation (mathematicians, computer scientists, Platonists) would tend to think — is it ultimately an aspect of social repression, of a sublimation meant to conceal rather than reveal the true nature of social reality? Are insignia of exalted status and legitimacy required so as to conceal and justify the violence and exploitation that surrounds kingship even when still largely a ritual office? Since board-games do function as royal, courtly attributes, there can be no denying that they have precisely this obscuring dimension, too. We may even go as far as claiming that they prepare the players, not so much for reality, but for an unreality in which the supernatural underpinning of the power of elders, kings and priests is more easily achieved. Then there would be a considerable similarity between the formal systems treated in the present study, and the ‘virtual reality’ of computer games today (cf. van Binsbergen 1996), equally alienated and structurally disciplined, and reflect the increasing isolation, atomisation, and socio-political powerlessness of the post-modern individual, and the virtuality of his general social experience. Perhaps the kind of multi-layered complexity which was introduced with Neolithic conditions meant for all mankind a downright expulsion (cf. Genesis 3: 23) from the immediate, momentaneous, Paradisal reality (the shortest possible lines between need and gratification) revolving on hunting and gathering. If board-games and divination systems are the hall-mark of a fundamental, fairly recent transformation, not just of thought but also of socio-political control, than their intransigence in the face of change and cultural specificity suggests the continued presence, even if at first overlooked, of such a context of control wherever they occur. Agriculture and animal husbandry (opening up opportunities for the unequal accumulation and appropriation of wealth, between elders an, youth and women, as well as between classes), kingship (which is not just about redistribution, but also about hoarding and control), literacy, legal authority, the state, organised religion... This is the implied but undeniable context of control of board-games and divination systems if they are indeed a Neolithic development. The conspicuous role of Islam in the global success stories of both mankala and geomancy may then simply be attributed to the fact that in much of the Old World distribution area of these cultural forms, and particularly in Africa, the encounter with organised religion, literacy and even statehood was often brought about with the penetration of Islam.69 Goody (1968: 25f) makes the point specifically in connection with geomancy.

    Did then the formalism of board-games and divination systems derive from socio-political control more than control over nature which I have stressed? Are both two sides of the same coin? Is the emergence of formal systems a precondition or a result of the emergence of formal political and ritual systems, and the possibilities of standardisation, remote control, storage of resources, reliance on the market instead of personal production for subsistence, exercise of legal authority, they entail? This remains a point for much further reflection.

    In other words, if board-games and divination systems are formal systems, such formal systems do not simply fall from the sky nor simply materialise as spontaneous expressions of some universal systematic principle underlying the universe as a whole. They are produced under specific social conditions, which include the Neolithic revolution in food production, but also more general features such as externalisation, appropriation and alienation, exploitation and its legitimation, the imposition of discipline, and the rise of legal authority supported by the written word, as against traditional authority merely underpinned by status and cosmology.


    9. Conclusion

    This complex argument has sought to pull together the available evidence on one prominent class of board-games, mankala, highlighting its formal structure, imagery and history by stressing its close parallels with geomantic divination; in the process it has formulated such theoretical and methodological considerations as a fair assessment of the scattered and heterogeneous evidence necessitated.

    I have ventured into archaeological, art historical, philological and philosophical realms far outside my specialist field, which is that of the anthropology and (oral, pre-colonial) history of Africa, especially its religions and ethnicities.

    For the main-stream anthropologist and the documentary historian my argument will be too speculative, doubly damned since it shows a diffusionist and evolutionist inspiration — both anathema — at the same time; hence it is obviously eclectic and methodologically flawed; and it is vainly looking for origins rather than being satisfied with sound history — or with the impossibility of threshing such history out of the scanty sources we have on board-games and divination systems. The reader can rest assured that I am rather aware of the theoretical and methodological dilemmas I have sought to confront, and I will discuss them at greater length at the appropriate place (van Binsbergen, forthcoming). Contrary to the tendency to extreme, entrenched localisation and fragmentation — the denial or ignorance of comprehensive continuities and systematic transformations, over vast expanses of space and time — which has been typical of anthropology during most of the second half of the twentieth century until recently, I have sought to demonstrate how the practices and meanings attaching to artefacts are not rigidly confined within local or regional ethnic, linguistic and political boundaries, but spill over and ramify across the continents while remaining — although in a very loose sense — attached to the objects that function as material foci of their meanings and practices.

    The art historian, Assyriologist, Egyptologist and archaeologist will see that I have scarcely scraped the surface of topics to which they may have devoted a life-time; hopefully the thrust of my synthesis may redeem at least in part my factual blunders. My argument, for what it is worth, is primarily intended as typological and theoretical, far more than descriptive. Ludologists and students of globalisation may see the point.

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