Humanity’s fascination with ball games has no limits, as more than 10 billion people combined watch football, cricket, basketball and tennis. And archaeological evidence spanning the centuries and continents tells us ancient humans were equally thrilled by kicking or throwing a ball around as a pastime. In ancient Egypt, for instance, the oldest-known balls were made out of linen about 4,500 years ago.
Across the Atlantic, in Central America, Mesoamericans enjoyed court-based games involving rubber balls for at least 3,700 years.
And until now, it was believed Europe and Asia did not follow suit until about 2,500 years ago in Greece and about 300 years later in China.
But new evidence has emerged to show balls were played in ancient China after all, between 2,900 and 3,200 years ago.
The discovery places the sport sometime between 1189 and 911BC, and it may have even coincided with the advent of horse riding mounted warfare in the region.
Researchers from the University of Zurich in Switzerland, together with colleagues from Germany and China, have discovered three leather balls in northwest China’s Xinjiang province.
The balls were found at an excavation at the Yanghai cemetery near the modern-day city of Turpan.
The were radiocarbon dated and measure between 2.9 and 3.6 inches (7.4 and 9.2cm) across.
Unfortunately, the researchers have been unable to determine yet what sort of game they were used for.
But according to Patrick Wertmann of the Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies of the University of Zurich, the Yanghai balls predate other known antique balls and ball game depictions in Europe and Asia by hundreds of years.
He said: “This makes these balls about five centuries older than the previously known ancient balls and depictions of ball games in Eurasia.
“Unfortunately, however, the associated archaeological information is not sufficient to answer the question of exactly how these balls were played.”
The earliest known depictions of ball games from Greece show players running around.
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In China, depictions show horse riders using sticks – an ancient sport perhaps reminiscent of modern-day polo.
Similar, curved sticks have been unearthed in Yonghai but the researchers have found no direct connection to the balls.
Dating efforts suggest the sticks belong to a more recent period than the balls.
Dr Wertmann said: “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.”
What is likely, however, is the balls were played in a team-based goal sport.
And two of the three balls were found in the burial pits of possible horse riders.
The discoveries were presented in the journal Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.
The study’s authors wrote: “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.”
The researchers believe their study shows balls games and sports played a central role in society, much like they do today.
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