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Central Asian horse riders played ball games 3,000 years ago

Christian Fernsby |
Researchers have investigated ancient leather balls discovered in the graves of horse riders in northwest China.

According to the international research team, they are around 3,000 years old, making them the oldest balls in Eurasia.

The find suggests amongst others that the mounted warriors of Central Asia played ball games to keep themselves fit.

The oldest balls that are currently known about were made in Egypt about 4,500 years ago using linen.

Central Americans have been playing ball games for at least 3,700 years, as evidenced through monumental ball courts made of stone and depictions of ball players.

Their oldest balls were made of rubber.

Until now, it was believed that ball games in Europe and Asia followed much later: In Greece about 2,500 years ago and in China about 300 years after that.

Researchers from the University of Zurich, together with German and Chinese researchers, have now examined in more detail three leather balls found in graves in the old Yanghai cemetery near the city of Turfan in northwest China.

The balls, measuring between 7.4 and 9.2cm in diameter, have been dated at around 2,900 to 3,200 years old.

In one of the riders' graves, the preserved remains of a composite bow and a pair of trousers were found, which were made in the region at that time and are among the oldest in the world.

Both are signs of a new era of horse riding, equestrian warfare and fundamental societal transformations which accompanied increasing environmental changes and a rising mobility in eastern Central Asia.

The current study shows that balls and ball games were part of physical exercise and military training from the very beginning.

In addition, just like today, sport also played a central role in society and was a widespread leisure activity.

The study's findings once again highlight that this region was a center of innovation within Eurasia several millennia ago.

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