Dr. Alex DE VOOGT
Assistant Curator of African Ethnology, Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History
"Cultural Transmission- The Rules of the Game"
5 Oct 2012
Dr. De Voogt gave a presentation on board games and how their study can advance our understanding of cultural transmission theory. Board games require that players have a consensus on rules, so tend to change relatively slowly.
He illustrated the transmission of games with two examples from the archaeology of the Middle East. The distribution and dating of excavated examples show that the game of twenty squares spread through conquest, while the game of fifty-eight holes spread along trade routes. Much can be learned about cultural transmission even though we do not know how the games were played.
He also discussed the case of the Maldives, which unusually has a Mancala board game that is not played in other nearby cultures in the Indian Ocean, but follows the rules very much like Malaysia. He used an interdisciplinary methodology, including collecting data from archaeological artifacts, local rules of the game, and even DNA analysis to see if the Maldive Islanders were genetically related to Malays. The case is still a mystery; solving this mystery may not only tell us about Maldive culture, but about cultural transmission more generally.
During the course of the talk, Dr. De Voogt proposed several hypotheses about the transmission of board games. He noted that the larger the regional scale, the smaller the changes across generations. He also said that the more complex the board game is, the less likely it is to change as it spreads. Board games spreading across socio-cultural boundaries are more likely to have innovations. He also noted that games can change gender, going from a men’s game to women’s game or vice versa.