A game from 3000 years ago

I came across this great paper today*:

CONNAUGHTON, S. P., TACHÉ, K., & BURLEY, D. V. (2010). Taupita: A 3000-year-old Shell Game in the Lapita Cultural Complex of TongaJournal of Social Archaeology, 10(1), 118-137. DOI:10.1177/1469605309354400  [link]

Abstract: Recent excavations at the archaeological site of Nukuleka on Tongatapu in the Tongan Archipelago have yielded the largest Lapita collection of perforated Ark (Anadara) shells known to date. In this article, we focus on the unusually large collection of modified Ark shells from Nukuleka in an attempt to unravel the ambiguity that surrounds their functional interpretation. Former interpretations of perforated Anadara as shell net weights may only explain one possible cause of their construction. We proffer, through relational analogy, that we are witnessing a 3000-year-old Lapita shell game.

These shells-with-holes in the 3000-year old archaeological record for Lapita have long been thought of as weighting material for fishing nets. But! The authors describe how during the field season on Tonga the local field assistants would, in their breaks, play a shell-based game (Taupita) – and the “debris” from this game matched that of the so-called net weights. Some lovely experimental archaeology later, and while they can’t discount the idea that the shells were used as net-weights, it’s certainly just as plausible that they were the pieces in a ancestral game resembling Taupita.

From the paper: Left: Playing Taupita Right: Anadara antiquata shells

This is groovy. I often mention in talks that one of the reasons for using phylogenetic methods on cultural and linguistic data is for the purposes of “virtual archaeology” – being able to infer something about social life in the past in the absence of appropriate material culture from archaeology. But there are of course some aspects of human behaviour and social life that combine both of these things: they leave some trace through artifacts, but there are missing pieces of the puzzle in terms of cognition, communication, or other cultural/behavioural aspects that remain outstanding. Games are a really good example – and often overlooked by both anthropologists and archaeologists. In the discussion the authors say:

As a community of archaeological scholars in pursuit of ‘big’ questions and larger anthropological themes, we sometimes lose sight of the day-to-day aspects of a society, including leisure time games which are rarely mentioned (but see Culin,1975; DeBoer,2001). Games are a social mechanism that can provide a unique opportunity to develop a skill, educate, make a tool,and/or potentially create a better understanding of one’s self. Games are also fun and part of the human experience.

Pacific anthropology has pulled its weight here, I think (no pun intended) – from the earliest late 19th century descriptions games were frequently mentioned, and there were detailed descriptions of string figures in a number of classic Pacific ethnographies, many published by the Bishop Museum. Honor Maude’s wonderful book on Nauru comes to mind here. I’d love to see more comparative and historical work on games – let me know if you have suggestions.

*So great I wanted to blog about it straight away, causing me to deviate from the master plan for today … but at least now I won’t go and do unnecessary research for this post all afternoon?

4 thoughts on “A game from 3000 years ago”

  1. Hi Fiona,
    This is a really neat blog. I don’t know why I didn’t notice it before.

    But when exactly do you find the time to do this wonderful blog AND write papers and so on (complete with aeronautic fist pumping action)?


  2. Hi Steve,

    That’s very kind! You probably didn’t notice it before because it lay dormant when I moved from UCL, trying to get my bearings here at MPI. I sorted out MUCH better time-management habits in the last year and got my Determined Face back on, so hopefully the blog re-start won’t coincide with a slide back into bad old habits!

    But fist-pumping can be multi-tasked 😉

    Looking forward to Plzen!

  3. I’ve seen at least two shell games in the central islands of the Philippines. One, called Sungka, is kinda like backgammon and I think there are versions of this all of the place – I saw it first in Melbourne. Another that I know less about involves breaking an opponent’s shell. Would love to know more about the diffusion of shell games in Austronesia.

    • Hi Piers,
      The Taupita game involves breaking the shells too … though it’s a pretty obvious thing to do (like conkers, I suppose) so I wouldn’t want to argue common ancestry of anything more than than the human urge “LETS BREAK STUFF” 🙂
      It’s one for consideration as a future project though, definitely.


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