The three balls found in burials at Yanghai cemetery were made of leather, with soft cores of hair or leather strips. [Image: Patrick Wertmann]

Three leather balls have been discovered in the prehistoric Yanghai cemetery in north-west China that pre-date by several centuries all existing evidence of ball games in Eurasia.

Ball games are known to have been played in Egypt c.4,500 years ago and in Central America at least 3,700 years ago, but it was previously thought that they were not present in Europe and Asia until much later. The earliest evidence for ball games in Greece dates to c.2,500 years ago, and they were not believed to have reached China until 300 years later.

However, research recently published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jasrep.2020.102576) has dated the three balls found in graves at Yanghai cemetery to between 2,900 and 3,200 years ago, making them 500 years older than any balls or depictions of ball games previously known in Eurasia.

Two of the three balls were found in burials with grave goods related to horse riding and archery, including whips, arm protectors, and bow sheaths. Ball games were used in military training for physical exercise, and it has been suggested that they may have appeared in this area around the same time as mounted warfare was becoming more widespread.

It is not known what kind of game would have been played with the balls, although some sort of team or goal sport has been suggested. Ten curved wooden sticks were also found at the cemetery, and it was initially assumed that they represented evidence for a bat-and-ball game like hockey, golf, or polo, particularly as hit marks have been identified on the balls, but analysis has determined that the sticks are much later in date and have several possible alternative uses.


This article appeared in issue 104 of Current World ArchaeologyClick here for more information about subscribing to the magazine.