Ancient leather balls discovered in the graves of horse riders in northwest China have been dated around 3000 years old and were probably used in games, according to researchers.
The games were probably played by the mounted warriors to keep themselves fit, the study team suggested, but there is no evidence to show the games were played on horseback.
The scientists say although the use of the three leather balls in team and goal sports is likely, they cannot link them to any game akin to hockey, golf or polo, because no appropriate sticks were found in direct association with the balls.
Whatever form the ball sport took, it was most likely used to help keep the warriors fit.
Researchers with the University of Zurich in Switzerland were part of an international team that investigated the balls, now assessed as being the oldest in Eurasia.
Today, ball games are one of the most popular leisure activities in the world, an important form of mass entertainment and big business. Ball sports take many forms, from the likes of tennis and football to mounted games such as polo.
But who invented balls, and where and when did this occur?
The oldest known balls were made in Egypt about 4500 years ago using linen. Central Americans have been playing ball games for at least 3700 years, as evidenced through monumental ball courts made of stone and depictions of ball players. Their oldest balls were made of rubber.
Until now, it was believed that ball games in Europe and Asia followed much later: In Greece about 2500 years ago and in China about 300 years after that.
The latest findings, reported in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, pushes that date back considerably.
Researchers from the University of Zurich, together with German and Chinese researchers, have now examined in more detail the three leather balls found in graves in the old Yanghai cemetery near the city of Turfan in northwest China.
The balls, measuring between 7.4 and 9.2cm in diameter, have been dated at around 2900 to 3200 years old.
“This makes these balls about five centuries older than the previously known ancient balls and depictions of ball games in Eurasia,” says first author Patrick Wertmann, of the Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies at the University of Zurich.
“Unfortunately, however, the associated archaeological information is not sufficient to answer the question of exactly how these balls were played.”
The earliest illustrations from Greece show ball players running, and depictions from China show riders using sticks. Comparable curved sticks were also found in Yanghai, but there was no apparent direct connection with the balls. Moreover, they are dated to a more recent period.
“Therefore, the leather balls from Yanghai are not connected to early forms of field hockey or polo, even though two of the balls were found in the graves of horsemen,” Wertmann says.
In one of the riders’ graves, the preserved remains of a composite bow and a pair of trousers were found, which were made in the region at that time and are among the oldest in the world.
Both are signs of a new era of horse riding, equestrian warfare and fundamental societal transformations which accompanied increasing environmental changes and rising mobility in eastern Central Asia.
The current study shows that balls and ball games were part of physical exercise and military training from the very beginning.
In addition, just like today, sport also played a central role in society and was a widespread leisure activity. The study’s findings once again highlight that this region was a center of innovation within Eurasia several millennia ago.
Patrick Wertmann, Xinyong Chen, Xiao Li, Pavel E. Tarasov, Mayke Wagner, New evidence for ball games in Eurasia from ca. 3000-year-old Yanghai tombs in the Turfan depression of Northwest China. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports. September 2020. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jasrep.2020.102576