String Theory

A bit of twine transformed between two hands is an ice breaker that transcends cultures and languages.

A few weeks ago, my 10-year-old Iris had one of those “I’m bored” moments. When this happens, I usually hand her my phone and let her disappear into the latest in mindless 99-cent entertainment.

Instead of Cut the Rope, however, something sent me into the kitchen, where I pulled a ball of twine out of the drawer and cut off a few feet. I tied the “rope” and taught Iris how to play Cat’s Cradle, just like a classmate had taught me when I was a kid.

We pinched and rotated our way through the steps of the game as best I remembered them, from Cat’s Cradle through Fish in a Dish. I taught her Witch’s Broom and Cat’s Whiskers. At that point, my string game knowledge was tapped, and I figured that’s about all there was to the pursuit. I also figured string tricks were invented by bored American kids, maybe in the 1950s while they were waiting to get their hands on drugs and early time-sharing computers.

Fish in a Dish from String Figures: A Study of Cat’s-cradle in Many Lands, 1906

Shortly after that, Iris and I took a trip to Japan and learned how wrong I was.

In Tokyo, Iris found that a loop of string is the ultimate icebreaker. Produce the Cat’s Cradle opening, and nearly anybody, old or young, will jump in with delight. Our friend Akira showed me up with flashy tricks that make the string seem to pass through a grinning victim’s fingers and wrists. I started wondering: Where do these string figures come from? How long have they existed? And where do you find them besides the U.S. and Japan?

Humans have used string since prehistoric times, and wherever there is string, there are string figures. We have no idea where they originated, but they’re found in hundreds of cultures, from hunter-gatherer to modern industrial, and often take the form of important cultural signifiers. On the island of Yap, for example, one string figure represents the island’s famous stone money being moved by four men carrying a log passed through the stone’s massive center hole.

Carrying money in Yap

We know about the ubiquity and diversity of string figures because of one particular group that practices them: anthropologists. Franz Boas, known as the father of American anthropology, wrote about Inuit string figures in 1888. Louis Leakey, the discover of Homo habilis and countless other pieces of proto-human history, used string figures the same way Iris did: as an icebreaker when traveling in sub-Saharan Africa. String games are like musical instruments or food: it’s hard not to get along with people when you’re sharing the experience.

But the world of string games would be poorly understood today without the work of Caroline Furness Jayne. Like Leakey, Jayne studied under English anthropologist and string figure enthusiast A.C. Haddon. Jayne, however, didn’t use string figures as a way to get to fossils. She studied string figures as human artifacts themselves, and traveled the world collecting them. In 1906, she published String Figures: A Study of Cat’s-cradle in Many Lands, an encyclopedia of over 200 figures from Europe, Native America, the Pacific Islands, the Arctic, and Africa.

The book is now in the public domain. You can download it for free or buy a cheap reprint edition. It’s lavishly illustrated, and its instructions are far clearer than the average string figure video on YouTube.

Iris and I can now make the Japanese butterfly, the Siberian house, and the mosquito. We use string made of modern synthetic polymers, but our fingers, frustrations, small triumphs, and cross-cultural exchanges belong to a tradition spanning back to when our ancestors had to contend with actual angry birds.

Matthew Amster-Burton is a Seattle freelance writer covering food and personal finance. He has written for Gourmet, the Seattle Times, and the Wall Street Journal, and writes a weekly column for His latest book is Pretty Good Number One: An American Family Eats Tokyo. You can read two short excerpts from that book at Medium: “I’ll Fry Anything Once” and “Tokyo Trash.”

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