Ancient American Board Games, I: From Teotihuacan to the Great Plains

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Besides the ubiquitous patolli—a race game played on a cruciform gameboard—the Aztecs had obviously a few other board games. Unfortunately their names have not been recorded. We owe to Diego Durán, writing in the last quarter of the 16th century from local sources, some hints of what appears to be a “war game” and a second, different race game that he calls ‘fortuna’. A close examination of some Precolumbian codices shows a rectangular design with a chequered border, together with beans and gamepieces, which has correctly been interpreted as a board game. Many similar diagrams can be seen carved on stone in temples and public places, from Teotihuacan (c. 4th-7th century AD) to late Toltec times (9th-12th century AD). Of this game too we do not know the name. It has tentatively been called quauhpatolli (“eagle- or wooden-patolli”) by Christian Duverger (1978)—although this seems to have been the classic post-conquest Nahuatl name for the game of chess—or “proto-patolli”, and more concretely “rectángulo de cintas” (rectangle of bands) by William Swezey and Bente Bittman (1983).

The lack of any representation of this game in all Postcolumbian codices, as painted by Aztec artists commissioned by Spanish scholars interested in the Aztec culture, is clear indication that the game had disappeared before the Spanish conquest, at least in central Mexico. No Aztec site shows any such gameboard. Fortunately this game had survived until the 20th (and 21st!) century but located in the Tarascan country, now the state of Michoacán. It was discovered, unchanged, in a Tarascan (Purepecha) village by Ralph L. Beals and Pedro Carrasco, who published their find in 1944. At that time Beals and Carrasco had no idea the game was attested in early codices and Teotihuacan to Maya and Toltec archaeological sites. In Purepecha the game is called k’uillichi.

There is evidence of an evolution that led to a simplification of the game: less tracks, less gamesmen (in fact only one per player, while k’uillichi has four), and less ‘dice’. From a “complex” race game, the new debased version turned to be a simple single-track race game with no strategy at all. It is possible that this process took place in Michoacán. (A few examples of the simplified game were found in some Tarascan villages.) Also it seems the widespread use of the Nahua language, which the Spanish promoted, led to calling the game, and/or its dice, patol. As it was, patol proved to be very appealing and became very popular in the Mexican West, finally reaching the Noroeste, that is, the present North-West of Mexico and Southwest of the United States.

This seems to have been a recent trend, since its progress was observed with much detail by missionaries living in close contact with the Indians along what was called the ‘Camino Real’, the long highway that led from western Mexico to what is now New Mexico in the U.S. The Spanish themselves seem to have helped the game in its diffusion, unaware of its presence. It is clearly with the Spaniards that the patol game, sometimes also called quince (fifteen), reached the American Southwest and settled in the Pueblo and the Zuñi countries.

It is there that some newcomers, coming from the North or from the Great Plains, and getting in contact with the Pueblos in the 18th century, found the game and took it over. The Kiowas and Kiowa Apaches are noted for their zohn ahl (or tsoñä) game, while the Arapahos call it ne’bäku’thana. A careful examination of zohn ahl shows that it has kept the basic features of an ancient game that came—in Spanish times—from Mexico and may have been popular in Teotihuacan times. Its spread northward—through the Tarascan country—is, hopefully, well documented.

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