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Egyptian girls playing a piggyback ball toss game

History of games: Egyptian girls playing a piggyback ball toss game

What were the first games?

There have been toys and games since before there were people; even young chimpanzees carry around wooden sticks as dolls and pretend they are babies.

Gambling games and dolls
History of board games
Early African games

What kind of games did early humans play?

History of games: Girls jump on a seesaw

Many very simple games are also very old, like running races and playing tag or leapfrog, circle dances, seesaws, swings, or competing to see who can jump the highest or the farthest, or throw a stone the farthest.

Ancient Greek seesaws and swings
Spinning and string

Cat’s cradle games with string probably go back as far as string does, to the Paleolithic, before the first people left Africa. Jacks, which is basically just tossing small stones up in the air and trying to catch as many as possible, is also probably very old.

Greek boys playing field hockey

History of games: Greek boys playing field hockey

The first ball games

Tossing balls also goes back at least to ancient Egypt. People made balls out of leather stuffed with cloth scraps or wool, sewn together with leather thongs or string.

Early Egyptian games

Boys in Athens played a game like field hockey with curved sticks and a ball. Girls juggled in ancient Egypt, and also in ancient Greece.

Athenian girl juggling (400s BC)

History of games: an Athenian girl juggling (400s BC)

Hopscotch and marbles

Hopscotch seems to have started out as a training exercise for the Roman army, but it soon spread to Africa and all across Asia.

By this time, and possibly much earlier, people also played marbles, first maybe with pebbles, then with small balls made out of clay (the crummy ones) and out of real marble (the good ones).

Who invented glass?

(Glass marbles were not invented until much later. It is still possible, though not easy, to buy clay marbles, but I have not found a source for stone marbles).

Chinese boys jump rope (Song Dynasty (?), ca. 1100 AD)

History of games: Chinese boys jump rope (Song Dynasty (?), ca. 1100 AD)

Again we don’t know the rules. But probably they played the same basic games of marbles that we know today.

In one version you take turns tossing the marbles at a goal (another marble, a hole, or a wall). In another version, you take turns shooting the marbles within a circle drawn in the dirt, trying to get them out of the circle.

Chunkey and bowling

Roman children bowling

Both Native Americans and Romans invented similar games where you set a target at a distance and throw balls, or spears, to get as close to the target as possible.

Games in ancient Rome

Jump ropes and hoops

Children jumped rope in Song Dynasty China (about 1100 AD) and in medieval Europe just a little later.

European boy rolling a wooden hoop (Pieter Bruegel, Kinderspiele, 1560, now in Vienna)

History of games: a European boy rolling a wooden hoop (Pieter Bruegel, Kinderspiele, 1560, now in Vienna)

Another type of game was played with wooden hoops and sticks. You could toss the hoop up in the air and try to keep it up in the air with the sticks (rather like a hula hoop). Or you could roll the hoop along the ground, pushing it with the stick.

When were the first board games?

People have probably been playing board games since the Stone Age, just digging little pits or scratching lines into the dirt and moving stones or beans from one pit or square to another.

History of board games

That’s the basis of the African game Mancala, and of checkers. The Egyptian game Senet, which goes back at least to 3000 BC, is a little bit more complicated. You toss sticks to decide how many spaces to move, and some spaces have special powers.

When were dice invented?

Arapaho stick dice

History of games: Arapaho stick dice

People first tossed sheep knucklebones, sticks, beans, and seashells to play games of chance. Because people also used shells as money, they could gamble with them much the same way you gamble with marbles.

Native American games
Mesopotamian games

Around the beginning of the Bronze Age, people in Mesopotamia or India invented six-sided clay or stone dice to throw instead. The odds on these dice were easier to calculate mathematically.

Board games with dice

women sitting and playing a board game

History of games: Women of the Tang court playing double land (about 800 AD)

Once people were playing with dice, they soon combined dice with board games to play backgammon, and the Egyptian game Hounds and Jackals. In India, they started to play the Hindu game Snakes and Ladders (which you may know as Chutes and Ladders).

History of backgammon
Ancient Egyptian games
Early Indian games

Go, chess, and playing cards

By the early Middle Ages, mathematicians knew more about statistics and game theory. They created new games that didn’t use dice: in China, the games of Go and double land, and in India, the game of chess. Mathematicians also invented new gambling games using paper playing cards about this time.

History of playing cards
Games in ancient China
Indian mathematics
Medieval European games

Aztec men throw beans as dice in a gambling game (Florentine Codex, ca. 1520 AD)

Aztec men throw beans as dice in a gambling game (Florentine Codex, ca. 1520 AD)

By the later Middle Ages, these new games spread to Africa and Europe, and then to the Americas.  In the Americas, Europeans learned to play lacrosse and became interested in swimming.

Learn by doing: play hopscotch or cat’s cradle
More about knucklebones and dolls

Bibliography and further reading about ancient and medieval games:

African games
Central Asian games
Chinese games (Kung Fu)
Indian games(Parcheesi, Chess, Chutes and Ladders)
Roman games (Gladiators)
West Asian games (Gambling and horse races)
Egyptian games (Dice)
Greek games (Olympics)
Islamic games (Polo and Chess)
Medieval games (Tournaments)
North American games (Lacrosse) home