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 Tonga. Journal 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.
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.