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Cupmarks, stellar maps, and mankala board-games (5)
An archaeoastronomical and Africanist excursion into Palaeolithic world-views

Wim van Binsbergen

with the astronomical collaboration of Jean-Pierre Lacroix

5. Ancient mankala board-games as point of departure

As one of the more pleasant results of the globalisation of contemporary life, many people, even including inhabitants of the North Atlantic region, are now familiar with one particular variety of board-games which, although widely distributed over the societies of the world, failed — for hitherto unknown reasons —  to install itself in Europe’s traditional heritage.[1] I am referring to the family of strategic mathematical board-games technically called mankala after their Arabic designation. Culin, the great ludologist (academic researcher of games) working around the turn of the twentieth century, called mankala Africa’s national game,[2] and it is true that there are hardly places in Africa were the game, in countless well-studied varieties, is not popular. The set-up of the game is clear from Fig. 1 depicting a West African mankala board. The board consists of 2 to 4 rows of holes. We shall limit ourselves here to the simplest, two-row variety. At the end of each board there may be larger holes serving as storage banks. To each player a row is assigned. In the initial position counters (beans, stones, seeds, fruit stones etc.) are evenly distributed over the holes in both rows. At every turn, a player takes all the counters in a particular hole in her or his row, and sows these in the prescribed direction over the next holes, leaving one counter in each hole. In the next move the adversary does the same, and by the strategic successive choices of holes the counters are gradually redistributed over the holes. There are rules of capture regulating when and how a player may take possession of the contents of which hole of the adversary, and put them in his bank. The game is over when either player has lost all counters.

Fig. 1. A contemporary West African mankala board[3]

            Ludologists have been fascinated by the virtual ubiquity, the great variation in form and rules, and the great antiquity of mankala games. Elsewhere[4] I have attempted, like others before me, to study these distributional and historical data trying to derive clues from them as to the game’s origin and its original imagery. The physical apparatus of the game as described above is fairly simple, and in that light it is not surprising that a great variety of archaeological settings, in Africa, the Near East, and elsewhere, have yielded artefacts which look like latter-day mankala boards (Figs. 2-6). Since further clues as to associated practices, iconographic symbolism, meaning are usually lacking, in these archaeological contexts, the simplicity of the apparatus implies the risk — which I have discussed elsewhere[5] at considerable length — that artefacts are interpreted to be of a ludic nature, i.e. to be games, whereas in fact they may have been ritual or technological apparatus associated with totally different practices and meanings than latter-day mankala.


Fig. 2. A four-row mankala game board excavated at Khami, Zimbabwe (ca. 1700 CE)[6]


Fig. 3. A Neolithic mankala-like stone from Beida [ add country ] [7]


Fig. 4. Artist’s schematic impression of a Neolithic mankala-like stone from Wadi Tbeik, [ add country: Jordan? ] [8]


Fig. 5. Neolithic mankala-like stone from ‘Ain Ghazal, Jordan[9]


Fig. 6. A vertical mankala-like monolith from Gada (Ethiopia), undated, possibly Neolithic[10]

            The material presented in this short chapter suggests that prehistoric cupmarks in stone stand at the cradle of the mankala family of board-games. Let us therefore, throughout this book, consider such early cupmarks, and their possible meaning.


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[1]                Distributional maps are given in my web article on Mankala in the present website.

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

[3]              Murray, H.J.R., 1952, A history of board-games other than chess, Oxford: Clarendon, p. 162.

[4]              Van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1996, ‘Time, space and history in African divination and board-games’, in: Tiemersma, D., & Oosterling, H.A.F., eds., Time and temporality in intercultural perspective: Studies presented to Heinz Kimmerle, Amsterdam: Rodopi, pp. 105-125; van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1996, ‘Black Athena and Africa’s contribution to global cultural history’, Quest — Philosophical Discussions: An International African Journal of Philosophy, 1996, 9, 2 / 10, 1: 100-137; van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1997, ‘Rethinking Africa’s contribution to global cultural history: Lessons from a comparative historical analysis of mankala board-games and geomantic divination’, in: van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1997, ed., Black Athena: Ten Years After, Hoofddorp: Dutch Archaeological and Historical Society, special issue, Talanta: Proceedings of the Dutch Archaeological and Historical Society, vols 28-29, 1996-97, pp. 221-254; van Binsbergen, W.M.J., in press (a), ‘Board-games and divination in global cultural history: A theoretical, comparative and historical perspective on mankala and geomancy in Africa and Asia’, in: I. Finkel, ed., Ancient board-games, London: British Museum Publications. These articles also provide an initial orientation in the extensive literature on mankala, and on games in general.

[5]              Cf. my article on Mankala in the present website.

[6]              After: Robinson, K.R., 1959, Khami ruins: Report on excavations undertaken for the commission for the preservation of natural and historical monuments and relics, Southern Rhodesia, 1947-1955, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: plate xxvii.

[7]              After [ add reference ]

[8]              After verbal description in Simpson, St. J., in press, ‘Homo ludens: Early board games in the Near East’, in: Finkel, I.L., ed., Ancient board games, London: British Museum, as based on Bar-Yosef [ add reference ] 1982: 10f.

[9]              After Rollefson, G.O. (1992) ‘A Neolithic game board from ‘Ain Ghazal, Jordan’, Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, 286, May 1992: 1-5.

[10]            After 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; as based on: Jensen, A.E., 1936, Im Lande des Gada, Stuttgart: Strecker & Schröder.

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