The Mesoamerican ballgame was a sport played since the year 1400 B.C. by pre-Columbian people of Central America and Ancient Mexico. The game was mainly associated with rituals where winners were offered with prestige and wealth but losers paid an ultimate price as sacrifice to the gods. Major formal ballgames were mainly featured human sacrifice as the events were considered ritual.
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There were different versions of the sport which were played in different places for example modern versions comprised of handball and kickball while the millennia versions comprised of hipball, trickball and stickball which were played in the ballcourts found throughout Mesoamerica. However, some versions of the ballgame is still played today in few local places especially among the indigenous population.
The rules that pertain to the ballgame are not clear but basing our judgment from the descendants, Mesoamerican ballgame can be compared to racquetball where by the main aim of the game is keeping the ball in play.
Striking the ball by the hips was a widespread and common version of the ballgame, however there were some versions which allowed the use of bats, handstones, forearms or the rackets (Clendinnen 2003). The ball used to play the game was heavy and dangerous as you find that even winners could come out of the game injured.
During the game, the players wore protective garments and yoke on their waist to protect themselves while the spectators did not wear anything to protect themselves from the ball since they sat at the heat of the arena where the game was played. Solid rubber was what was used to make the ball which weighed 4kgs (9lbs). However, the size of the ball was not standardized as it differed greatly based on the version played and also the period played. Women and children mainly played the game mainly for recreation.
The first Mesoamerican ballgame originated in low-lying tropical zones somewhere in the rubber tree. The oldest ballcourts were discovered in Paso de la Amada by archeologist on Pacific Coast.
However the first ballgame began in Olmec culture around 1400 BC with the earliest known rubber balls coming from El Manati which was a sacrificial bog along Gulf Coast in the heartland of Olmec. It is here that the archeologists found twelve balls; they however discovered that five of the balls were dated between 1600 and 1700 BC (Clendinnen 2003).
Ritual offerings were found at the site where the twelve rubber balls were discovered which indicates that the ballgame had ritual and religious connotations. Local villagers found a stone yoke at the site where the balls were discovered which leaves out a possibility that the rubber balls were not independently a form of sacrificial offering but mainly ritual ballgame.
The oldest and the first Olmec court known as rudimentary ballcourt dated from 600 to 400 BC; however, figurines ball players date back to 1250 BC. San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan which is a site near Olmec uncovered numerous figurines ballplayer. After the discovery of Olmec ball game items, the archeologists thought that the ball players were represented by Olmec colossal heads who were rulers.
The ballgame moved to central Mexico from tropical lowlands. Around 1000 BCE, the Xochipala-style figurines ballplayer were crafted though no ballcourts were discovered in Tlapacoya or Tlatilco a place where interring of the ballplayer figurines took place (Clendinnen 2003).
It is however possible that Guerrero, Tlatilco and Tlapacoya were the sites where the ballgame was played but on temporary courts or on courts which had perishable boundaries. Later on the ballgame spread out to Western Mexico people Mayans, Veracruz, Teotihuacans, Huastecs, Aztecs and Toltecs. In 1528, the Aztec team was sent to Spain by Spanish conquistador to perform for King Charles V.
There were several different variations of the ballgame which emerged over a period of time in Mesoamerica. The most common type of the ballgame required team players or individuals to use their hips to score and pass the ball after passing it through a ring. However, the modern alama the traditional name of Mesoamerican ballgame greatly resembles volleyball but there was no net where they could determine who has won the game if one team fails to turn the ball to the other side of the pitch differentiated by the net (Schwartz 2000).
Teotihuacan was another different variation of the ballgame; a wooden stick was used to hit the ball which is similar to modern hockey. In Aztec game, victory was achieved by hitting the opposite teams wall through a ring. However, the major reason why the games were played during the ancient period was for formal reasons such as religious ceremonies and for recreation.
Despite the fact that the ballgames differed, the courts where they were played remained similar in Mesoamerica. The 1300 stone ball courts in Mesoamerica were in the shape of “I” when viewed from above (Schwartz 2000). The ball courts ends were open leaving the play ground to the alley.
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However, the size of the ball courts varied the length and width ratio was 4-to-1 which was used for over three thousand years. The smallest of all the courts were built at Tikal a site in Mayan while the largest court was in Chichen Itza also in Mayan. The ball court sections were unique with diagonal walls that allowed the ball to be easily banked. There were other courts which had vertical walls that made it hard to bank the ball.
There were however some major centers such as Teotihuacan and Mayan cities of Tortuguero and Bonampak which lacked ball courts despite the fact that the ball game iconography were found at the sites. The ball courts were also used for festivals, musical performances and wrestling matches which is a similar occurrence in our modern stadiums.
The balls were also in different sizes ranging from the size of beach ball which weighed six to nine pounds to the size of softball. The balls were made from rubber trees extracting latex from it and mixed it with Morning Glory vines juice (Schwartz 2000). However, human skulls were used to make the bigger balls; they wound rubber strips around the human skulls to make the balls lighter. The balls were mainly offered to the gods what they termed as votive offerings; many of the balls were found in sacrificial springs or bogs.
The player’s uniforms had countless drawings, paintings, figurines and stone reliefs. Simple loincloth is what the hip game players wore during the games occasionally adding leather hip guards to protect them from getting injured. There are however, some cultures that used to wear thick wooden, wicker or stone girdles covered in leather or fabrics. These types of clothing’s were called yoke (Schwartz 2000). The earlier archeologists mistook the yokes to be used by animals since they resembled animal yokes.
The stone yolks were however heavy and archeologists suggests that they were either used after or before the games mainly in contexts if ritual. Despite providing protection, the yoke and the girdle also helped in propelling the ball providing it with more force which the hips alone could not provide.
There were some players who however wore Palmas which were used for chest protection (Clendinnen 2003). The ballgame players also used gloves, helmets and kneepads to protect themselves from injury which is also a similar culture in modern hockey or ballgame games.
The kneepads are also worn by forearm players today in who comes from many different parts and areas in ulama (Schwartz 2000). Archeologists also discovered that the ballgame players wore elaborate headdresses but mainly for ritual contexts not for protection. Several Dainzu reliefs depict that capes and masks were also used by the ballgame players while Teotihuacan murals depict that men used to play the stick-ball in skirts.
In conclusion, the ancient Mesoamerican ballgame has many similarities with what is happening in sports today ranging from the garments to the pitch/ courts.
Some things like kneepads, helmets and gloves which were used by ancient Mesoamerican ballgame players is still a common act among modern hockey and ballgame players. The ancient ball courts were also used for different purposes such as music festivals and performances which is also a common practice in the modern world where the stadiums are used for different ceremonial occasions.
However, the ball courts unique vertical and diagonal designs make a big difference in the modern and ancient fields. The ancient Mesoamerican ballgames were not only played for recreation but mainly they were associated with rituals where winners were offered with prestige and wealth but losers paid an ultimate price as sacrifice to the gods. Major formal ballgames were mainly featured human sacrifice as the events were considered ritual.
Clendinnen, I. (2003). Ambivalent conquests: Maya and Spaniard in Yucatan, 1517-1570, 2nd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Schwartz, S. (2000). Victors and Vanquished: Spanish and Nahua Views of the Conquest of Mexico. Bedford: Bedford/St. Martin’s Publishers.