Many millennia ago, in around 2000 BC, a gaggle of nomadic desert herders spent their downtime in a way that will feel familiar to many modern families: They sat down together, and played a board game.
Azerbaijani archaeologists had long been aware of the distinctive holes cut into the floor of an ancient rock shelter in Gobustan National Park. But recent research from archaeologist Walter Crist of the American Museum of Natural History finally explains what they are, and why they’re there.
Crist believes the carvings to be the remains of a board game known as 58 Holes, or Hounds and Jackals, played throughout the ancient world in Egypt, Anatolia, and Mesopotamia. Perhaps the most famous example was found by archaeologist Howard Carter in the tomb of the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Amenemhat IV, who lived about 3,800 years ago.
“It suddenly appears everywhere at the same time,” Crist told Live Science. “Right now, the oldest one is from Egypt, but it’s not by very much. So, it could just be because we haven’t found it from somewhere else older. So, it seems to [have] spread really quickly.”
Almost as mysterious as how it spread, however, is how it was played. Some hypothesize that it may have resembled backgammon, with seeds or stones taking the role of counters to be pushed around the board toward a particular endpoint. Others have thought the game might have involved dice—though none have been found yet.
In general, reconstructing ancient board games is an almost impossible task—there are simply too many variables. Even the archaeologists of the future may struggle to understand how we play today’s games. “Imagine you find a Monopoly board and a handful of street cards plus one little tin hat and a little tin shoe, nothing else, and no trace of something similar in the written sources,” games historian Ulrich Schädler told Atlas Obscura. “It is absurd to think one might ever be able to reconstruct the Monopoly rules in all their details.”
What’s easier to glean is what the point of them might have been—in the broadest possible sense. Games weren’t just about play, but also about cooperation, said Crist. ”People are using the games to interact with one another,” he told LiveScience. “Moving 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. A game is a tool for interaction, kind of like language—a shared way of being able to interact with people.”