Gambling is one of humankind’s oldest activities. Dice in particular have drawn attention from scholars, and a recent study of dice reveals that truly balanced dice did not really exist until the Renaissance. How pre-Renaissance people viewed their games’ fairness is difficult to say, but dice themselves have a long and fascinating history.

In the pre-colonial Americas, dice were typically just two-sided, painted on each side. According to archaeologists Warren DeBoer and Barbara Voorhies, native people throughout North America and Mesoamerica constructed dice of a wide variety of materials, such as fruit pits, shells, or teeth, or even split reeds or sticks. The typical die was curved on one side and flatter on the other. Six-sided dice came into use later and may have been introduced by Europeans.

Archaeologist H.S. Darlington believed that many American dice games had origins in sacred Aztec rituals. As part of the process of correcting their calendar for things like leap years, priests engaged in a “game of chance” to see if they could summon fire in the body of a sacrificial victim. The sticks used to tally the weeks of the calendar were bundled up and tossed as part of the ritual. Unsurprisingly, the priests rigged the game by making sure the fire would start. The sun symbolism and sticks found in many precolonial American dice games suggest the games may have begun with this ritual.

Given the uneven shapes of many early dice, it is unclear whether or not the games were truly games of chance. Therefore, according to DeBoer, dice playing in the Americas involved not just luck, but a considerable degree of skill to achieve a desirable toss. Some gamblers tried a different tactic; cheating was apparently rampant in some native societies.

Across the Atlantic, Romans in the fort of Richborough, in the UK, apparently did view dice as controlled by chance, and took steps to ensure a fair outcome. To this end, some ancient Romans employed a device called a dice tower. About 7.5 inches tall, made of bone, and inscribed with elaborate designs, the dice tower was a structure enclosing a series of ramps. Dating from the 4th century C.E., the dice were tossed in to the top of the tower. Passage down the ramps was supposed to make the roll fair. Such towers appear in illustrations and mosaics across the Roman world, so they must have been in wide use. But nobody knows if they worked as intended.

The exact symbolism and fairness of the games may have varied, but high stakes were common. European colonists noted games of chance with large amounts of trade goods, food, housing, or even people, as the pot. Mayans used precious stones or feathers as wagers. Games were raucous affairs. The racket surrounding one such game had a very descriptive word in the Algonquin language, that subsequently entered English: hubbub.



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