• Researchers found what might be the oldest known balls in Eurasia
  • It's not clear how the game was played but it was likely part of exercise and military training
  • The ball game possibly arose around the same time as horseback riding

Researchers found what may just be the oldest ancient balls in Eurasia. The find provides evidence that ball games were already around in Europe and Asia earlier than previously thought.

In a new study, a team of German and Chinese researchers report the discovery of three ancient balls that were recovered from the graves in the prehistoric Yanghai cemetery in northeast China. They are made of leather and measure somewhere between 7.4 and 9.2 centimeters.

Radiocarbon dating of the balls reveals that they are likely from 2,900 to 3,200 years ago, making them the oldest balls in the region.

"This makes these balls about five centuries older than the previously known ancient balls and depictions of ball games in Eurasia," study first author Patrick Wertmann of the Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies at the University of Zurich (UZH) said in the university news release.

This means that ball games were likely played in Eurasia much earlier than previously thought.

Early ball games were believed to have come to Europe and Asia later than in other cultures around the world. For instance, the oldest balls and ball games in America have been dated back to over 3,000 years ago, Pennsylvania State University (PSU) notes. By comparison, ball games in Europe were thought to have come much later.

"In Greece about 2,500 years ago and in China about 300 years after that," the UZH news release said.

But with the researchers' findings, it appears that ball games appeared earlier in the region.

It is unclear, however, exactly how the ball was used. Although they were recovered from the graves of possible horsemen and there have been previous depictions of riders using sticks, the researchers note that they cannot confirm whether the balls were used in a game similar to the modern polo or golf because they did not find sticks in "direct association" with the balls.

"Given that ball games from ancient times were considered an excellent form of physical exercise and military training, we suggest that balls (and ball games) appeared in the region at the same time as horseback riding and mounted warfare began to spread in the eastern part of Central Asia," the researchers wrote.

The study is published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

Image: Representative image of a horse's legs. Pixabay