Mancala is the oldest board game still widely played today. It is popular around the world but very much so in Africa. Mancala pieces have been found in Egyptian tombs, the Phoenicians played it in the sixth-century BCE, and so did the people of Axum in the first centuries CE. [Read more:The Ark of the Covenant“] The word itself comes from the Arabic naqala, meaning “to move.”

To be precise, there is no one game called “mancala.” Rather, it is a family of games which have been given different names in different places. Yet all mancala games consist of a board with indentations in which the players take turns placing — “planting” — small stones, beans or seeds. The object is to capture — “to harvest” — all or some of the opponents pieces. How this is done varies depending on local variations in the rules. In fact there are several hundreds of different versions of the game. Ali guli mane is commonly played in Southern India, bao is played in East Africa and congkak in Indonesia, Malaysia and southern Thailand.

One may wonder why similar games are played in such different places. One possibility is that they have originated independently of each other. This is not too difficult to imagine since the rules are pretty basic and related to a social practice — planting seeds and harvesting them — which is common to mankind. The other, more intriguing, possibility is that the game has spread from one society to the next. We can imagine that Buntu people played the game when they were not busy migrating. [Read more:The Bantu migration“] And we know that people on all sides of the Indian Ocean have traded with each other for over two thousand years. That the game is played in Central Asia can then easily be explained as a consequence of trade along the caravan routes. [Read more:Sogdian letters“] Even if people do not speak the same language they can still have fun playing mancala.

If this is the case, a map showing us the popularity of the game today would show us a map of early human interaction. It is worth noting, perhaps, that the game has not been commonly played in Europe. Today mancala is popular as a computer game and exists as apps both for Android and iPhones.

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