Saturday, December 29, 2012


Tlacuachero game board. From Games People Play, Barbara Voorhies,
p. 48, Archaeology Magazine, May-June 2012.

An article in the May/June 2012 issue of Archaeology magazine illustrated another possible use for groups of small holes. In this article Barbara Voorhies (Professor Emeritus, University of California, Santa Barbara) described discoveries at the site of Tlacuachero in the Mexican state of Chiapas which was inhabited between 5,050 to 4,230 years ago. The floors of some of the huts excavated had circular or oval patterns of holes in them that she identified as game boards. Voorhies source of inspiration for this identification came from the book Games Of The North American Indians, by Stewart Culin, originally published in 1907 as the Twenty-fourth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, 1902-1903, Smithsonian Institution, Washington. Voorhies explained that “Culin’s book pulled together ethnographic accounts showing that board games were played by societies across the area that is now Canada, the United States, and Mexico.”

Walapai game board, Fig. 279, p. 208, From: Culin, Stewart,
Games of the North American Indians, Vol. 1, Twenty-fourth
Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology,
1902-1903, Smithsonian Institution.

White Mountain Apache game board, Fig. 86, p.88, 
From: Culin, Stewart, Games of the North American
Indians, Vol. 1, Twenty-fourth Annual Report of the
Bureau of American Ethnology1902-1903,
Smithsonian Institution.

One category of games in the system of classification developed by Culin was “race games”, such as our modern children’s game of Candyland where the winner is the first to reach the final goal. “In race games, the winner is the first player to move his or her pieces to a goal – Candyland and Snakes and Ladders are modern versions of race games. The “boards” themselves were usually improvised arrangements of small stones. In places where stones were not easily available, people made their game boards by digging small holes. The Hualapai people of Arizona used a type of game board closely resembling the oval features at Tlacuachero.” (Voorhies 2012: 50)

Pecked holes in lava flow, Puako, Hawaii, Photograph: Ellen Belef, Sept. 2012.

Pecked holes in rock, PuuLoa, Hawaii, Photograph: Joe Belef, 2007.

I shall not go into details about how these games were played referring any interested parties to go to the original publication. Suffice it to say, however, the knowledge of the existence of these features, and the reasons for them, should suggest to us that there are other possible identifications that may be considered for circular, or oval, patterns of holes. These patterns of holes can be found in many locations among the rock art. I have illustrated two examples from among the photographs of Hawaiian rock art given me by Joe and Ellen Belef, but I have seen such patterns in many places in the American west. As I stated elsewhere these are often misidentified as piko stones no matter where they are found (including the American west). All too often rock art enthusiasts parrot a line such as “holes in a stone are meant to put a newborn’s umbilical cord in,” but even in Hawaii where piko stones really exist, not all patterns of holes in a rock may be correctly identified as piko stones.

So, in the future, while pondering the true nature of a pattern of holes in a rock surface I submit that we must also keep in mind the possibility that patterns of holes may have other purposes such as counting or for use as game boards. Remember humanity’s predilection for play.

Thank you again to Ellen and Joe Belef for sharing their Hawaiian rock art photographs with us all.

Culin, Stewart
1907    Games Of The North American Indians, Twenty-fourth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, 1902-1903, Smithsonian Institution.

Voorhies, Barbara
2012    GAMES PEOPLE PLAY, Archaeology Magazine, May/June 2012, pages 48 – 51.

1 comment:

  1. The 8 hole pattern around a central hole looks exactly like a game board for Mu Torere.This game was played by the Maori people of New Zealand.The Maori were Polynesians as were the original Hawaiians.The conclusion is inescapable;this is a board for the same game.