Yale Archaeologist Discovers Ancient Mancala Game Boards in Kenya's Highlands
In a remarkable fusion of local knowledge and academic expertise, Yale University's Veronica Waweru has uncovered what she thinks is an ancient "arcade" of Mancala game boards in central Kenya, revealing a new layer of human history in the region. This discovery, made within the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, highlights the enduring legacy of one of the world's oldest known games, Mancala, and the importance of collaboration between scholars and local communities in unearthing archaeological treasures.
Local Tip Off Leads to Incredible Find
According to the Yale University News report, Veronica Waweru, a Yale archaeologist with a specialization in Kenyan fieldwork, was initially drawn to the conservancy on a different mission—to investigate the looting of prehistoric hand axes. However, a tip from a local contact soon diverted her focus to a more engaging historical narrative—an ancient "arcade" where early inhabitants once gathered to play Mancala, a game known for its strategic depth and widespread cultural significance.
During her visit, Waweru, accompanied by Lewa's knowledgeable staff, came across a series of shallow pits etched into a rock ledge. These pits, varying in depth and showing signs of erosion, hinted at a long history of the playing of Mancala, a two-player, strategy-based board game still played across the world today.
The site, scattered with what might be 20 of these ancient boards, some superimposed over older ones, presents a tangible link to the past, suggesting a communal space where people of various eras converged to test their wits and pass the time.
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Mancala Game Board, 19th century. (Brooklyn Museum/CC BY 3.0)
Ancient History of Mancala
Mancala is thought to be among the oldest two-player board games, known to be played in ancient Africa around 700 AD, with early evidence found in Eritrea and Ethiopia. It is thought its true origins could go back much further, although evidence for it being played is uncertain.
Rows of pits which might have been used for a form of Mancala have been found cut in stone in Iran from 6300 BC, and Jordan from 5900 BC, notes a Daily Kos article, but their true function is not certain.
Double rows of possible Mancala board pits have been found in Egyptian temples, but it has been impossible to date these, and they could have been created much later than the ancient temple itself.
Similarly, sets of two rows of five pits, as can be used in Mancala have been found on Roman artifacts and locations from around the 2nd century AD.
The game spread globally through Arabian traders, deriving its name from the Arabic word "Naqala," meaning "to move." Mancala's simplicity and the extensive trade routes of Arabian traders facilitated its adoption in various regions, including southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa, the Baltic states, and North America. While it took longer to gain popularity in Europe, the game's enjoyable nature contributed to its widespread appeal, maintaining its relevance from ancient times to the present.
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Burial mounds at the research site in central Kenya. (Courtesy of Veronica Waweru/Yale University)
Can Mancala’s History Be Proven to go Back Thousands of Years?
This latest find and investigation by Waweru could make fresh discoveries regarding the game’s history, and certainly for the ancient lifestyle in the region. Waweru describes how the location has been used by peoples for millennia, due to the water source:
“There is always a water source there…That could be a reason why very early human ancestors came there. It’s been occupied over and over again throughout time. Within the last 10 thousand years, people played Mancala there.”
However, the true date of the supposed boards themselves will be difficult to date, ‘as they are carved into 400-million-year-old rock’.
A clue could be in what is to be found in the vicinity of these indents. Nearby are 19 burial cairns, and if DNA can be extracted from organic material found there, this could reflect on the date span for the pits.
The archaeologist and her team are now seeking funding to further investigate the site, aiming to uncover more about the people who played Mancala here and their connection to modern inhabitants.
Local Knowledge in Archaeology
Waweru's approach to archaeology is notable for its inclusivity and respect for local expertise. Over the years, she has trained local farmers and residents to identify potential archaeological sites, treating them as equal partners in the research process. This collaboration has led to numerous discoveries, including fossils, artifacts, and new archaeological sites, demonstrating the value of combining professional and local knowledge in scientific research.
The discovery of the potential Mancala boards, alongside the evidence of burial practices and everyday life activities, paints a picture of a region rich in history and human activity.
The Royal Game of Ur and other ancient games are now available from Ancient Origins. (Ancient Origins)
Top image: Rows of shallow pits drilled into rock are thought to be where ancient people played a version of the game Mancala. Source: Courtesy of Veronica Waweru/Yale University
By Gary Manners
Cummings, Mike, Feb 2024. A local tip helps reveal an ancient ‘arcade’ in Kenya’s highlands. Yale News. Available at: https://news.yale.edu/2024/02/01/local-tip-helps-reveal-ancient-arcade-kenyas-highlands
Flank, Lenny, 2020. Hidden History: Mancala, the World's Oldest Board Game?. Daily Kos. Available at: https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2020/5/26/1890617/-Hidden-History-Mancala-the-World-s-Oldest-Board-Game