Eurasia’s oldest balls suggest warriors worked out

The balls are "about five centuries older than the previously known ancient balls and depictions of ball games in Eurasia," says Patrick Wertmann. (Credit: U. Zurich)

Ancient leather balls from the graves of horse riders in northwest China are around 3,000 years old, making them the oldest ones from Eurasia, according to new research.

The find suggests that the mounted warriors of Central Asia played ball games to keep themselves fit.

The oldest known balls come from Egypt about 4,500 years ago and are made of linen. Central Americans have been playing ball games for at least 3,700 years, as evidenced by monumental ball courts made of stone and depictions of ball players. Their most ancient balls were made of rubber. Until now, it was believed that ball games in Europe and Asia followed much later: In Greece about 2,500 years ago and in China about 300 years after that.

Researchers have now closely examined three leather balls found in graves in the old Yanghai cemetery near the city of Turfan in northwest China. The balls, measuring between 7.4 and 9.2 cm (roughly 3–3.5 in) diameter, date to around 2,900 to 3,200 years ago.

“This makes these balls about five centuries older than the previously known ancient balls and depictions of ball games in Eurasia,” says first author Patrick Wertmann of the Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies of the University of Zurich. “Unfortunately, however, the associated archaeological information is not sufficient to answer the question of exactly how these balls were played.”

The earliest illustrations from Greece show ball players running, and depictions from China show riders using sticks. Comparable curved sticks were also found in Yanghai, but there was no apparent direct connection with the balls. Moreover, they date to a more recent period. “Therefore, the leather balls from Yanghai are not connected to early forms of field hockey or polo, even though two of the balls were found in the graves of horsemen,” says Wertmann.

One of the riders’ graves contained the preserved remains of a composite bow and a pair of pants, which were made in the region at that time and are among the oldest in the world. Both are signs of a new era of horse riding, equestrian warfare, and fundamental societal transformations that accompanied increasing environmental changes and a rising mobility in eastern Central Asia.

The new study shows that balls and ball games were part of physical exercise and military training from the very beginning. In addition, just as today, sport also played a central role in society and was a widespread leisure activity. The study’s findings highlight that this region was a center of innovation within Eurasia several millennia ago.

The research appears in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

This publication is part of the research project Sino-Indo-Iranica rediviva-Early Eurasian migratory terms in Chinese and their cultural implications of the Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies at the University of Zurich, which the Swiss National Science Foundation funds. The work is also a contribution to the Silk Road Fashion project run by the Beijing Branch Office of the German Archaeological Institute’s Eurasia Department and funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (FMER).

Source: University of Zurich