4,000-Year-Old Board Game Found Tucked Inside An Azerbaijan Cave

The ancient caves of Gobustan national park, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Azerbaijan, where the board game was found. Aleksandrs Muiznieks/Shutterstock 

Before "Monopoly" and "Snakes and Ladders", you had "58 Holes" (colloquially known as "Hounds and Jackals"), an ancient board game enjoyed by all, from the Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt to nomads in the Middle East.

Now, Walter Crist, a research associate with the American Museum of Natural History in New York, believes he has found one of the oldest known examples of the game tucked away on the walls of a cave in southwestern Azerbaijan. He presented his findings at the annual meeting at the American Schools of Oriental Research last month.

"There is no doubt in my mind... [it's] very regular in the way that it's laid out," Crist told Live Science, referring to the distinctive markings etched into the cave wall. 

"It is two rows in the middle and holes that arch around outside, and it's always the fifth, 10th, 15th and 20th holes that are marked in some way," he explained. "And the hole on the top is a little bit larger than the other ones, and that's usually what people think of as the goal or the endpoint of the game."

Archaeologists have found more than 70 examples of the ancient board game scattered across Egypt and the Near East but despite its incredibly recognizable style, they still don't know how it was played. Some think it was an archaic form of backgammon or cribbage, with opponents using handmade counters made of sticks or stones to race each other around the board.

Others suspect it was also used in divination or funerary rights, with the movement of the counters (determined by a die or casting stick) interpreted as a sign of divine will. Though neither a die nor a casting stick has been found alongside a game set as of yet. 

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Crist came across this particular example after spotting the tell-tale markings in a cave in a magazine photograph. When he flew to Azerbaijan to see it in person, he found the cave buried under a housing development. Undeterred, he investigated nearby sites before arriving at one in Gobustan National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Based on rock drawings, archaeologists have dated the site to 2,000 BCE, which could make it one of the oldest examples of the game in the world. At this time, the region was inhabited by nomadic cattle herders, reports Live Science. 

As well as providing some form of entertainment after a long day cattle herding (or, in the case of the Pharaohs, ruling), Crist argues the game was "a tool for interaction" – a bit like language.

"[M]oving stones in blank spaces on the ground has no real effect on your daily life, except for the fact that it helps you interact with another person," he argues.

[H/T: Live Science]

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