Study shows how dice may have evolved to reflect role of fate in cultural beliefs

February 21, 2018

Dice seem like one of the fairest tools of chance ever designed. Six sides, each one equal size and smoothness, with pips distributed in such a way that the sides opposite each other all add up to seven. As long as everyone’s honest, the only thing controlling them are your own throws, physics, and gravity. But according to a new study, arriving at that design took thousands of years of evolution and iteration, and that some of the earliest dice were likely made to represent the ethereal value of fate over scientific chance.

The study, entitled “The Evolution of Cubic Dice from the Roman Through Post-Medieval Period in the Netherlands”, was conducted by Jelmer W. Eerkens and Alex de Voogt, anthropologists from the University of California and the American Museum of Natural History New York, respectively. The two studied and analyzed over 100 examples of dice unearthed in the Netherlands, with some dice dating as far back the Roman Era of 650 CE. 

The earliest Roman dice share some common features (namely, the “sevens” configuration, where numbers on opposite sides of the dice add up to seven), but vary wildly in shape and size, to the point where some sides are clearly going to come up more often than others when rolled. According to an interview with Eerkens conducted by The Atlantic, this is likely because those cultures were more likely to believe divine intervention, rather than chance, played a role in their games.

“Some of the non-symmetry that we see in the earlier dice might be a by-product [of the idea] that it wasn’t thought to be very important in the function of the dice,” Eerkens told The Atlantic, “that it didn’t matter too much, because other things were controlling whether you would win or lose the game.”  

The study then describes how dice became more uniform over time, especially in the late 1600s, when Blaise Pascal’s probability theories grew in popularity. This shift in design may be attributed to a culture that began to value “chance” over “fate”, at least when it came to their games.

Both the study and The Atlantic article are fascinating reads, and show how even the little things we take for granted (like playing cards) have a wealth of human history behind them.