The Origin of String Figures

First published 1999. Abstract revised August 2002.

by Martin Probert

Abstract

In Part I we suggest a possible context for the discovery of string figures. In Parts II and III we propose that the most widely distributed string figures are those most capable of independent invention. This conclusion is derived through an analysis of the mechanical constructions of the collected figures. The theory is to be seen in contrast to the alternative hypothesis that these widely distributed figures have a common origin. Several predictions are made concerning any future string figure collection that comes to light. Additional collections examined by the author since the first publication of this article all support the theory.

Part I - How old are string figures?

"these games - so ancient and yet so fresh"
(Kathleen Haddon, String Games, 1934)

Explorers and anthropologists around the end of the 19th century discovered the game of string figure making in many parts of the world: the Arctic, North and South America, the Pacific islands, Australia, New Zealand, Africa and South East Asia. The occurrence of string figure making among such widely separated peoples led several writers to suggest an ancient origin. But the earliest evidence of string figure making that has come to light is in a Greek document of the 4th century AD.

We content ourselves in Part I with a tentative suggestion as to the most remote date at which string figure making might reasonably have been practised. The requirements are that the peoples living at such a time are known to have handled some sort of string-like material, were engaged in some sort of sophisticated manipulation of it, and made loops of it.

The loop

"a single loop of string"
(Caroline Furness Jayne, String Figures, 1906)

The practice of making a loop out of string-like material can be dated to the Upper Palaeolithic (late Old Stone Age, 40-10,000 BC) for the beads of necklaces (if not the loop itself) have survived in graves of the period.

Hunter-gatherers, moving from place to place, needed to travel light and, besides the clothes they wore and such ornamentation as bracelet and necklace, carried nothing but hunting tools. When they came to a resting place, having none of the artefacts of settled farming peoples with which to busy themselves and otherwise spend their time, the adults may have used a necklace (or a loop of string or sinew) to occupy their hands or to amuse a child.

The manipulation of string

"weaving or twisting this loop on the fingers"
(W. W. Rouse Ball, An Introduction to String Figures, 1920)

There is evidence that from the Upper Palaeolithic onwards an active manipulation of string-like materials was taking place. Hair-nets have been found in burials of the time suggesting that fishing nets, of which the earliest found date from the Mesolithic, may also have originated in the Upper Palaeolithic. The strings at the intersections of the meshes were either twisted or knotted together: when knotted, the knot was of the simple variety (J. G. D. Clark, Prehistoric Europe, 1952, pp. 226-239).

The earliest known string figure

"a piece of string in the form of a ring, that is, one having no beginning, is taken"
(?Heraklas, c.100 AD)

The earliest known description of a string figure occurs in a collection of excerpts from earlier writers by the Greek medical writer Oribasius (c.320-400 AD). A description of what we now call a string figure appears to be taken from the works of the writer Heraklas. The text explains that the figure is useful as a binding to put around and straighten a fractured chin.

String figure glossary

string figure
Fig. 1 - plinqios (plinthios)
Greece, 1st or 2nd century AD

Opening A; pass each ring finger over the index loop and remove the thumb loop [from above]; pass each index finger over the ring finger loop and remove the little finger loop [from above]; navaho the index loops; [gently extend].

Origin of String Figures - Part II
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