This area of northwest China may have been the venue for Eurasia’s oldest ball games.
A team of Swiss, German and Chinese researchers has used radiocarbon dating to analyse three leather balls found in graves in a cemetery near the modern city of Turfan and dated them to between 1189 and 911 BCE.
That’s not old by global standards; the oldest balls currently known about were made in Egypt some 4500 years ago, when field hockey was among the favoured pastimes.
However, the Turfan balls – which range in size from 7.4 to 9.2 centimetres – “predate other currently known antique balls and images of ball games in Eurasia by several centuries”, the authors write in a paper in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.
There is insufficient evidence to suggest whether they were kicked, thrown or rolled, but the researchers, led by Patrick Wertmann from the University of Zurich, say it is likely they were part of team and goal games.
They also note that the age of the balls coincides with the spread of horse riding in Central Asia.
Two were found in the graves of horsemen, and one of the graves also included the preserved remains of a composite bow and a pair of trousers, which were made in the region at that time and are among the oldest in the world.
Both are signs, the researchers say, of a new era of horse riding, equestrian warfare and fundamental societal transformations which accompanied increasing environmental changes and a rising mobility in the region.
“Given that ball games from ancient times were considered an excellent form of physical exercise and military training, we suggest that balls (and ball games) appeared in the region at the same time as horseback riding and mounted warfare began to spread in the eastern part of Central Asia,” they write.
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