Polo is one of the oldest known team sports and originated in Iran for the cavalry as a training exercise, with earliest versions of the game being played from the 6th Century BC to the 1st Century AD. It has since gained an immense following across the globe with the jet-set, hence its nickname the “sport of kings.” Currently over 100 countries belong to the Federation of International Polo, with over 16 nations fielding professional teams. The sport was even included in the Olympics from 1900 until 1936.

Now scientists have discovered ancient leather balls – thought to be around 3,000 years old – in the burial sites of riders in Asia. The balls, measuring between 7.4 and 9.2 cm in diameter, were found in northwest China. “This makes these balls about five centuries older than the previously known ancient balls and depictions of ball games in Eurasia,” says author Patrick Wertmann of the Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies of the University of Zurich to Science Daily. “Unfortunately, however, the associated archaeological information is not sufficient to answer the question of exactly how these balls were played.”

The three leather balls with diameters between 7.4 and 9.2 cm are between 3200 and 2900 years old. (Credit: UZH)

The newly-discovered balls are approximately the size of modern polo balls, whose diameter ranges from 7.6 cm to 8.9cm. According to the researchers, sticks were found at the same gravesite but there was nothing to definitively connect them to the balls to prove that some version of polo was played in ancient China. However, there are depictions and ancient illustrations that show Chinese horsemen playing a version of polo on horseback. It is also thought that such ball games were part of military training exercises as well as a social event.

No idea if champagne and stomping of divots were part of the ancient polo scene in Asia!