These Hair-Filled Leather Pouches Are the Oldest Balls Found in Eurasia

Some 3,000 years ago, Chinese horsemen may have used the objects to play a team sport involving hitting a ball

Ancient leather balls
Three 3,000-year-old balls discovered at the Yanghai cemetery complex in Xinjiang University of Zurich

Many of the most popular sports played around the world have at least one characteristic in common: They involve throwing, hitting or kicking a ball. Now, reports Joshua Rapp Learn for Inside Science, an international team of scientists has uncovered evidence that people in northwestern China played ball games as early as 3,000 years ago.

Researchers conducting excavations at the Yanghai cemetery complex in Xinjiang discovered three fist-sized leather balls bearing hit marks from some kind of bat or stick in three separate tombs. One of the burials also contained the remains of a 40-year-old man wearing what archaeologists think are the oldest known pants in the world. The pants, as well as bows, sheaths and riding equipment found in that grave and one of the others, suggest the ball-players were mounted warriors.

Based on the team’s analysis—newly published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports—study co-author Patrick Wertmann, an archaeologist at the University of Zurich, tells Inside Science that the three balls were likely used in a team sport. The activity may have served as a form of military training.

Marks seen on the balls hint that they were probably part of a game involving bats or sticks. Since the only comparable equipment found in the area dates to a much more recent era, researchers say it’s hard to know exactly what the game may have looked like.

“It could be something like polo,” Wertmann tells Scientific American’s Christopher Intagliata. “But it could also be something like an early form of hockey or golf. Since we don’t have any textural evidence, and we don’t have any sticks from the same period, we don’t really know exactly.”

Ancient Chinese polo images
Images dated to between 25 and 220 A.D. depict riders playing a polo-like game. Rubbing by Li and Zheng via Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports

Speaking with Inside Science, Jeffrey Blomster, an anthropologist at George Washington University who was not involved in the study but has previously published research on Mesoamerican ball games, says the most interesting aspect of the find is the fact that the three balls are all roughly the same size. That consistency, he argues, supports the idea that they were used to play a game or sport.

Per Jeff Spry of SYFY Wire, the newly discovered balls are made of leather pouches stuffed with hair and leather and tied with a band. Two are marked with a red cross. Wertmann tells Scientific American that the balls’ composition is particularly interesting because the Chinese character for the word “ball” combines the ideograms of “hair” and “leather.”

As the authors note in the paper, earlier research suggests that people in China played polo as early as 2,000 years ago. Images found at a site in Xuzhou—far to the east of the Yanghai tombs—show mounted riders chasing a ball with sticks. Scientists theorize that travelers may have brought the sport east from Central Asia over time.

The new finds represent the oldest balls ever found in Asia or Europe. But older balls have been found elsewhere in the world. An Egyptian child’s tomb dated to about 2500 B.C. contained a ball made of rags and string, while a rubber ball found in highland Mesoamerica dates to around 1600 B.C., according to Inside Science.

Previously, the researchers explain in a statement, the oldest evidence of ball games in China was about 2,200 years old. The oldest balls found in Europe come from Greece and are about 2,500 years old.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.