Yale archaeologist Veronica Waweru was conducting fieldwork in Kenya last summer when she received a tip from a local: Tourists were removing hand axes from a site inside the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. Concerned, Waweru contacted the conservancy and arranged a tour.
Her tour guide was a local expert who had discovered several ancient sites within the conservancy, including a burial complex. Waweru was taken to the site of the stone hand axes and was “relieved to find a ‘carpet’ of hand axes covering the ground,” according to a statement from Yale.
However, another site caught her eye during her visit: rows of shallow pits carved into a nearby rock ledge. Waweru thinks the pits were game boards once used for mancala, a family of two-player strategy games.
“It’s a valley full of these game boards, like an ancient arcade,” says Waweru in the statement. “Given the erosion of some of the boards, I believe people were playing these games there a very long time ago.”
Mancala is a family of games all played with a similar set-up: Players move tokens, like beads or seeds, across rows of shallow holes. (The name “mancala” comes from the Arabic word naqala, which means “to move.”) These games are thousands of years old, with “examples of mancala-like rows of holes appearing at archaeological sites across Africa, the Middle East and southern Asia,” as Smithsonian magazine’s Meilan Solly wrote in 2020. Today, mancala is still played all over the world.
While erosion had shrunk some of the pits, others were “deep enough to comfortably hold a handful of stones,” per the statement. Waweru thinks they may have been built in different stages, with the older pits sustaining the most damage. Still, the age of the pits “remains something of a mystery,” writes Newsweek’s Aristos Georgiou. “Dating the game boards precisely is challenging because the rock they are carved into is about 400 million years old.”
Who used the game boards? Their location may offer a clue: The site—situated near the equator, on the eastern side of Africa’s Great Rift Valley—occupies a low-lying basin surrounded by highlands, per the statement. Water regularly flows into the area from the surrounding elevation. Waweru thinks herding societies could have resided in the area up to 5,000 years ago, with the basin’s water drawing in “very early human ancestors.”
“[The basin has] been occupied over and over again throughout time,” she says. “Within the last 10,000 years, people played mancala there.”
The conservancy’s nearby burial site could also help contextualize the game boards. The complex features 19 stone cairns—mounds of stone marking a grave—and it could contain DNA evidence regarding the identities and ages of the basin’s inhabitants.
Waweru and her team hope to continue working at the site to learn more about the groups that may have once used its mancala pits.
“Modern people in the region tend to play games like mancala when they are out herding,” she says. “That’s probably what they were doing here. People tend to look at early life as brutish, nasty and short. But perhaps life was not all about survival.”