When we think of ancient people, we usually picture them hunting big game, gathering plants, making clothing and shelter, warding off terrifying beasts, fighting enemies, dealing with drought, flood, storms, injuries, and disease – in other words, struggling to survive.

However, studies of contemporary societies and recent archaeological finds paint a different picture.  For contemporary hunter-gatherers, at least in the 20th century, collecting food, even in a challenging environment, took only half the day.  Thousands of years ago, the job might have been even easier because there were far fewer people competing for available resources.  Ancient people in temperate environments may well have spent far less time working each day than modern folks do.

So what did ancient people do with all that spare time?  Apparently, some of them did exactly what we do: they played games.

Games played by individuals

Individual contests have probably been around since people have.  It’s natural for us to want to know who can fight the best, run the fastest, or jump the highest.   Winners gain power and prestige; losers are shamed.

However, physical contests can also prove deadly.  The invention of the game allowed people to compete without having to die for the victory.   It provided a format in which two individuals could struggle for dominance, but it also established a stopping point and rules about what was allowed and what was forbidden.

Wrestling is the oldest individual competition with documented rules.  A papyrus discovered in Egypt but written in Greek, dated to 100 AD, states the rules of the game at that time.  It’s also represented in a sort of ancient animation sequence in an Egyptian mural that is 4000 years old (shown).

War games

Settling disputes without having to kill a lot of people was also important in early warfare.  In some cases, rather than have opposing armies battle each other with tremendous loss of life on both sides, the outcome was decided by a battle of champions.  Each side picked the person most likely to win the fight (usually the biggest and strongest) to represent them.  Once the contest was won, everyone could go home, except of course for the champion who lost.  One of the most famous battles of champions is recalled in the Bible story of David and Goliath.  Goliath, the champion of the Philistines, was a mighty giant whose challenge to the Israelites’ army went unanswered until David volunteered.  In an early example of brain vs. brawn, David won the contest with the help of a few well-aimed stones from his sling.  Once Goliath was defeated, David cut off his head and displayed it to the enemy forces, at which point they retreated.  Thus, a conflict that might have killed many men was settled by two individuals.  In this case, war imitated a game.  There were rules and limits.

Some Plains Indian tribes used the practice of counting coup for the same end.  They would strike the enemy in the head with a hand or a coup stick, which counted as a kill in terms of pride and power  but didn’t actually kill the loser.  This was particularly important when human population density was low and the hunters were needed to feed the rest of the people.  In some cases, the impression of victory was enough to settle the dispute.

Team games

A team competition is very different from an individual contest.   In a team, the individual’s drive to win is subsumed to the collective success of the group.  The great team player is one that makes sure the team wins, even if it sometimes means less personal glory.

Once a player dons the uniform of a famous team, he takes to himself part of that past glory.  He becomes more than he was alone.   As the Liverpool Football Club logo says, “You’ll never walk alone.”

The team creates a tribal identity for both players and supporters.  The team’s success directly affects the tribe it represents.  Team competition is ritualized warfare by a group of champions (in the old sense of the word) specifically chosen to represent the larger community in battle.  People today proudly wear the colors of the team they support, like the yellow and blue of the Brazilian soccer team in the photo, fly team flags outside their homes, even paint their faces to display their allegiance to that group, all of which are clear echoes of ancient practices.  Allegiance to a particular team can be so ingrained that a long-time New York Yankees fan might find it hard to support the San Francisco Giants, even after moving to California.

While a win is cause for celebration among all of the team’s supporters, a loss is a bitter disappointment.  True, we don’t sacrifice the losers on the ballcourt the way some Mesoamericans did, but a loss is still painful.  In some soccer matches, the loss of an important game can bring death threats to the players involved and bloody, sometimes fatal fights among the fans.  In these cases, the failure of the team is a personal disgrace.

Political connections

The spectacle of organized large-scale games can also reinforce political power.  The oldest documented teaImage from Majorie Barrick Museum, University of Nevadam sport is the Mesoamerican ballgame.  At least 3,500 years old, it was often used as a symbol of cultural identity and political power, with rulers of powerful city-states frequently appearing on monuments in the garb of a ball player, sometimes combined with images of the gods.  That’s not surprising.  According to Maya creation stories, the Hero Twins had to face many ordeals before they played ball against the Lords of the Dead.  The contest was long and complicated, involving many personal tests and the use of the head of one Twin as a ball in the game.  Like their father, they had to die before they could be reborn.  The game is therefore intimately connected with death and rebirth, especially that of the maize seed that must be buried in the earth before it can be reborn into the life-sustaining plant.  It’s easy to see why the Maya kings wanted to be connected to the ballgame.  The first illustration is an artist’s conception of the ancient game in play.  The other is taken from a vase commemorating the visit of a neighboring ruler, showing him dressed as a ballplayer.  While his garb is impressive, it’s not really suited to playing the game.  It’s the symbolism that counts.

The ancient Romans were famous for their games at the Colosseum, which could involve fights with or between wild animals, gladiatorial combat (shown), comical farces, even capital punishment (or reprieve), all with free lunch and wine courtesy of the Emperor.  The observers certainly understood who was providing the show.  In 76 BC, Julius Caesar organized a naval battle show that involved a specially-dug lake, over a hundred ships, and thousands of men.   The spectacle reinforced the image of the Empire’s power in the minds of the spectators.  It was entertaining but also a little scary.

It’s interesting that all major US football, soccer, basketball, baseball, and hockey games begin with the singing of the national anthem, a practice that began during World War II.  However, individual sports events such as golf and tennis do not.  Is that because the team competition is related to the larger team – the nation?  Is it a subtle reminder of who is bringing you this afternoon of sport?

The board game: a race or a war

Not all games involve physical activity.  Some are virtual competitions played out on a board with pieces representing the players.  The most common form is the race game, in which the player who gets to the end point first wins.  You might recognize the race in a modern game like Candy Land or an more ancient game like backgammon or parcheesi (based on the Indian game pachisi).

Another common form is the fight game, where the goal is the annihilation of the opponent through strength and strategy.  It appears in modern games like Risk and more ancient games like chess or checkers.  It’s also the core of popular video games like World of Warcraft, Halo, Call of Duty, Deus Ex, etc.

According to “Games People Played,” an article in the May/June issue of Archaeology magazine, archaeologists working at the Tlacuachero site in southern Mexico (occupied over 5,000 years ago) were puzzled by groups of tiny holes in an oval pattern clustered in one section of the site.  A possible answer was suggested by a 1907 book called Games of the North American Indians by Stewart Colin.  Across Canada, the United States, and Mexico, Colin collected accounts of indigenous peoples’ board games, all of which were either race or war games.  The Hualapai people of Arizona used a game board closely resembling the one at Tlacuachero.  Players tossed pieces of wood flattened on one side and smooth on the other to determine how many places they could move their stone or shell pieces.  The winner was the first player to move all the pieces to the finish.

Game boards have been found in ancient Mesoamerican sites from Teotihuacan (northeast of Mexico City) to Copan (Honduras).  Of course, many other games might have been played without leaving a wood or stone board behind for archaeologists to find.  A race game could be played with nothing more than pebbles and holes in the sand.  A war game like marbles would leave no recognizable clues behind.


If the game board was rectangular instead of spiral, the Tlacuachero game would look very similar to mancala (known by many other names, including Kalah and Oware), developed from an African count and capture war game that some suggest is well over 7000 years old.


Another ancient board game is Senet, shown in the picture being played by Nefetari, one of the Great Royal Wives of the pharoah Ramses the Great, about 3500 years ago.

Unfortunately, no one has found any record of the rules of the game.

Played on a board similar to the modern one, checkers also shows up in ancient Egypt.

The Royal Game of Ur

This board game, popular in Ur (Iraq) at least 5000 years ago, worked as both a race game and a divinatory tool.  Each player had five pieces; moves were determined by a throw of knuckle bones or cowry shells.  Certain squares, which apparently had astronomical connections, portended good fortune if landed on.  Several very ornate boards have been found, the most famous of which is currently in the British Museum’s collection in London (shown in photo).


This race game, which originated in Persia (Iran)more than 4,500 years ago, has survived to this day in much the same form.   It’s worth noting that the oldest backgammon board was found at a mysterious and wonderful ancient city called Shahr-e Sukteh (Iran).  The fields on the game board were made to resemble the coils of a great snake.  (Another interesting though unrelated find at this site was the first artificial eyeball, a round object covered in gold foil.  Tiny holes in the sides allowed the eyeball to be threaded and then sewn to the eyesocket.  The wearer was a six-foot tall woman, whose remains were dated to 4,800 years ago.  The site also included a skull with signs of brain surgery and the oldest known dice.)


The undisputed king of board games, often called the game of kings, is chess, the ultimate war game.  It has many variations and multiple historical sources, including India, China, and Persia.  In the illustration, Radha and Krishna play a game called chaturanga, a precussor of chess which gave different powers to different pieces.  According to a story told by Stewart Gordon in his article “The Game of Kings,” Persian nobles first learned the game from a visiting Indian emissary.  Completely taken with the game, they practiced non-stop for days and then beat him!  In the list of ancient games, though, it is a relative newcomer, at only 2000 years old.

What is the value of games?

A game is a controlled competition.  Like counting coup, it allows the opponents to compete with a clear sense of what constitutes winning.  A board game is a virtual competition with minimal risk (though I’ve seen more than one relationship end over Monopoly games).

Team games create tribal connections.  We are, at least for that moment, united with others in support of a common goal.

When we play a game of football  or chess, or we cheer on our favorite team, we are carrying on a very, very old tradition.

Sources and interesting reading:

The Sport of Life and Death: The Mesoamerican Ballgame, by Michael Whittington, published by Thames and Hudson, 2001

“The Sport of Life and Death: The Mesoamerican Ballgame”

Artist’s rendering of the Mesoamerican ballgame, from the Majorie Barrick Museum, University of Nevada, Las Vegas

“The Royal Game of Ur”

“Big Game Hunter,” Time Magazine, June 19, 2008

“Board Game” Wikipedia

“Games Ancient People Played” by Barbara Voorheis,  Archaeology magazine, May/June, 2012

“Shahr-e Sukteh” Wikipedia

“Ancient text proves wrestling is oldest sport on record,” by Gary Mihoces, USA Today, October 11, 2011

“The Game of Kings,” by Stewart Gordon, Saudi Aramco World, July/August, 2009