Photograph by Tommy Heinrich, Nat Geo Image Collection
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While donkeys, like these in China's Taklamakan Desert, are not generally known for their speed and agility, they were used in an ancient form of polo known as ljvu.

Photograph by Tommy Heinrich, Nat Geo Image Collection

Archaeologists discover first evidence for polo—on donkeys

Bones from a 1,150-year-old tomb in China show that the animals served as much more than beasts of burden.

Polo is known as the “sport of kings,” a challenging equestrian pastime that has amused aristocrats for centuries. But well-heeled polo players didn’t always ride horses. New research confirms that an ancient Chinese noblewoman likely played the game on donkeys instead—and enjoyed the pursuit so much, she was buried with her prized charges.

Researchers from China and the United States describe the find in the latest issue of the archaeological journal Antiquity. It’s the first physical evidence for this species-specific variation of the sport known as ljvu that has been described in contemporary chronicles and portrayed in art, but never confirmed in the archaeological record until now.

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A Tang-era figurine of a donkey

Polo is thought to have evolved from equestrian games developed by nomads in central Asia. Though there is archaeological evidence for a predecessor of the sport in China from approximately 2,400 years ago, the game, in which teams of horse-mounted riders compete to knock a ball into a goal, skyrocketed in popularity a millennium later during the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-907).

References to horse polo abound in Tang Dynasty art and literature, and many Tang-era tombs feature polo-related artifacts and art, including mausoleum murals and ceramic figurines. But scholars of the period have always been curious about a subset of ancient polo depictions that seemingly show donkeys, not horses, on the field in a game called ljvu.

“There are many examples of Chinese artwork depicting women, that one would assume were of higher status, playing polo on donkeys,” says Brenda Lynn, a spokesperson for the Museum of Polo.

Beasts of burden?

The first archaeological evidence for Tang-era donkey polo comes from the tomb of Cui Shi, a noblewoman who died in 878 in Xi’an in central China. When archaeologists recently opened the tomb, they discovered that it had been looted sometime over the past 1,150 years. The looters took most things of value, but left some objects behind, including a stone epitaph, a lead stirrup, and a variety of seemingly worthless animal skeletons. Using mitochondrial DNA analysis, the researchers determined at least three of the animals buried with Cui Shi were donkeys.

To understand whether the donkeys lived their lives as beasts of burden or as polo mounts, the research team analyzed their bones. Radiocarbon dating confirmed the animals had been buried along with Cui Shi and not left behind by later looters; isotopic analysis revealed the donkeys were well fed with large quantities of plants, likely millet.

Finally, a biomechanical analysis confirmed that they likely hadn’t been used as pack animals: When researchers compared the buried donkeys’ bones to those of wild asses and pack donkeys, they found that they didn’t amble or trek like their cousins. Instead, the donkeys seemed to have sprinted and turned often—just like a polo mount.

“Donkeys have seldom been used for display and sports like horses,” says Fiona Marshall, an archaeologist and donkey expert at Washington University in St. Louis who helped study the bones. “This find shows that donkeys also had a place as high-status rather than low-status animals.”

A risky game

But why did Cui Shi choose donkeys—an animal not necessarily known for its speed and agility? Tang-era polo matches could involve high stakes and high risk, and researchers suspect donkeys were thought to be safer and sturdier than horses.

Cui Shi’s husband, Bao Gao, learned that lesson himself. According to the Xin Tangshu, the official chronicle of the Tang Dynasty, the high-ranking subject of Emperor Xizong had his own passion for polo, viewing the sport as a road to military prestige and a chance to keep his equestrian skills sharp. Bao Gao did indeed benefit, gaining a coveted generalship based on his polo skills, but not before losing an eye in a polo match.

Lynn of the Museum of Polo says that artwork has long been considered a reliable indication of the existence of the sport by polo historians, but that in the absence of archaeological confirmation, “trying to speak to the exact origins and traditions practiced in earlier times is often subject to speculation.”

“It is always thrilling to get more details to help confirm when, how, and by whom polo was played.”