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Two rows of holes dug into dry packed earth: African games

Early African board games: a simple Mancala game scratched into the dirt

What were the first games?

People have played games in Africa since before they were really even people, and some of these games are unchanged from hundreds of thousands of years ago. Chimpanzees play tag, and probably the earliest people did too.

More about chimpanzees
The evolution of people
All our Early Africa articles

baby chimpanzee sitting in a tree holding a stick in one hand up over her shoulder

History of toys: A young chimpanzee holds a stick as if it were a baby (thanks to National Geographic)

Early African people also made and used lots of different kinds of toys. Young chimpanzees seem to carry around sticks as doll babies, and probably the earliest people did that, too.

African toys: a spinning buzzer

One very early toy used a small flat piece of wood or bone or clay with two holes in it. You put a leather thong or a piece of vine or a string through each hole and spun the string to wind up the toy; then when you pull the strings out tight the disk spins around and makes a buzzing noise.

Sometimes people carved pictures of animals on both sides of the disk. Then when the buzzer was spinning it would look like the animal was running. These were very early movies!

Jacks, hopscotch, marbles

In historical times, kids in Africa played jacks with rocks, as they did in other countries and as they do today. There’s a long history of games without any equipment at all. They ran races and played hide and seek. Kids scratched lines in the dirt to play jumping games like hopscotch. Or they got long vines or a rope to play jumprope.

More about games in ancient Egypt

Ancient Egyptian painting of girls dancing holding hands in a circle

Early African games: Ancient Egyptian girls circle dance. From the tomb of Mereruka (Old Kingdom, ca. 2200 BC)

Another kind of early African toy was marbles: Kids played marbles, with stones or little balls of clay, or nuts. They played hacky-sack too. They played cats-cradle with string.

More about clay
Spinning and string

Singing and rhythm games

African kids liked to play singing and rhythm games too. For instance, they might stand in a circle. The leader would clap a rhythm and then the others would clap the same thing, and then the leader would clap something harder, more complicated, and the others would try to copy it.

Early African music

A box with a wooden mancala game in it

You can get your own Mancala game to play!

When did people start to play board games?

People in early Africa played board games. The best known board game from Africa is Mancala. You can play Mancala just by making two rows of little holes in the ground, and using little rocks or seeds as the playing pieces.

Many people did play African board games that way, and possibly people have played that way since prehistoric times. People often used farming words like “sowing” to describe how you moved in Mancala, so maybe the game got started about the same time as farming, about 8000 BC.

Rows of holes carved into a gray stone slab

Early African games: the earliest known mancala board – Axum, ca. 600 AD

What’s the earliest Mancala board we still have?

The earliest actual Mancala board that we still have today comes from Axum (modern Ethiopia), where somebody cut the game board into stone about 600 AD.

People took Mancala strategy very seriously in Africa. They debated and studied Mancala strategy the same way people in Europe and West Asia played chess, and people in China played Go.

Senet: another African board game

Senet was another early African board game. The game of Senet came from ancient Egypt. You can find out more about the rules of Senet on our page about Egyptian games. Ancient Egyptian people, people across North Africa, and people in Sudan and Ethiopia also used square dice to play gambling games.

More about the game of Senet
The history of dice

Other games come to Africa

African people traded more and more with other places. They learned new games from the people they met. By around 300 BC, people in Africa were playing the West Asian game of backgammon, with dice. About 700 AD, they started to play the Indian game of chess. More than two hundred years after that, about 950 AD, they started to play card games with playing cards from China.

All of these games probably crossed the Sahara into West Africa and Central Africa with camel caravans starting in the Early Middle Ages.

More about backgammon
The history of chess
Where did playing cards come from?

Looking for more sources to cite? Check out David Parlett’s interesting article and suggested reading.

Did you find out what you wanted to know about the history of games and toys? Let us know in the comments!

Learn by Doing – Play some of these games
More about Ancient Egyptian games
And more about board games
More about medieval Islamic games

Bibliography and further reading about African games:

Egyptian Games
Islamic Games
Ancient Greek Games
Indian Games
Ancient Africa home