Excerpted from our Mancala Games booklet.
Mancala, or Wari is a game whose variations are played throughout sub-tropical Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and the West Indies. "Mancala" was originally an Arabic word and is the generic name used by anthropologists for this huge family of games. Because of its wide distribution around the world, it is difficult to trace the connections between all of the variations, but it seems to have originally spread outward from Egypt, and Arabia.
The earliest known mention of Mancala in Europe is in a description of West Africa in Richard Jobson's Golden Trade (1623). in which he described his 1620 ascent of the Gambia River. But unlike other games which may have returned to Europe with the crusaders, Mancala never gained a foothold in Europe (outside of areas influenced by Islam) until modern times.
There are a number of traditions which have been attached to Mancala games in various societies. In the "old world" Mancala games are primarily recreational, but in the West Indies there are more frequently religious connotations to its play. The New World version called Awari was often played in a house of mourning to amuse the spirit of the deceased until the body was buried. Scholars have speculated that these customs were brought by slaves from Africa where the beliefs may now be obsolete, or forgotten.