Cupmarks, stellar maps, and mankala board-games (4)
An archaeoastronomical and Africanist excursion into Palaeolithic world-views

Wim van Binsbergen

with the astronomical collaboration of Jean-Pierre Lacroix

4. From geomancy to mankala board-games

How could I make sense of the Francistown geomantic tablet oracle which I learned as a sangoma? In the Arabian form of ilm al-raml, classic geomancy revolves on pairs and foursomes. For while patterns of single and double dots (arranged in four horizontal lines one over the other, e.g. ) are the standard notional units in later geomantic divination; its notational symbolism initially, among Islamic writers as from the 9th century CE (third century AH), consisted of dots and lines, e.g. — in close reminiscence of the I Ching symbolism of broken and unbroken lines, e.g. ) from which the Arabian geomancy partly derived. Here, and in the geographical and historical patterns of distribution and the role of Islam of a major vehicle of spread, lies the link with the mankala board-game. Pairs, threesomes and foursomes constitute the basis of mankala; the board consists of two to four rows of cavities (cup-holes) along which counters (pebbles, beans, grains) travel according to fixed rules. Both geomancy and mankala are prominent and intercontinentally distributed formal systems, characterised moreover by a remarkable constancy over time and an amazing power to cross social, cultural, linguistic and political boundaries. One cannot study geomancy without realising its close structural, distributional and historical association with mankala.

            Since cup-holes are the hallmark of mankala (as the instances of mankala boards in Chapter 1 demonstrate), one is tempted to try and understand mankala in the context of the earliest cupmarks known to scholarship: those of the Middle and Upper Palaeolithic. It is this what triggered the research and the argument of the present book.


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