The Mesoamerican ballgame was a game 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 those who won were rewarded with wealthy gifts while losers offered a sacrifice to the gods as a final price. 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, trackball, and stickball which were played in the ballcourts found throughout Mesoamerica. However, there are some methods of playing ballgames that are still in use today and present mainly among native people.
The archeologists have not found rules of the game however Mesoamerican ballgame is similar to racquetball where the rules of the game involve maintaining custody of the ball. Some common practices of the game involved the use of hips to hit the ball while other methods permitted bats, sandstones, forearms or rackets to be used (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 in 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 edition played and also the period played. On the other hand, the game was also played for leisure mainly by women and their children. This paper illustrates the origin, cultural aspects, and formal and material aspects of the Mesoamerican ballgame.
The first Mesoamerican ballgame originated in low-lying tropical zones somewhere in the rubber tree. The archeologists revealed that Paso de la Amada someplace near Pacific Coast is where the oldest ballcourts were located. However, the first ballgame began in the Olmec culture around 1400 BC with the earliest known rubber balls coming from El Manati which was a sacrificial bog along the 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). Several signs show that ritual offerings took place at the location where the twelve rubber balls were discovered.
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 a ritual ballgame. The oldest and the first Olmec court is known as a rudimentary ballcourt dated from 600 to 400 BC; however, figurine 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 ballplayers were represented by Olmec’s colossal heads who were rulers. This is because the heads differed and the helmets were similar to headdresses and they had distinctive elements. This is why archeologists thought that Olmec’s colossal heads were rulers who might have clothed themselves as ballplayers.
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). There is a great possibility that Guerrero, Tlatilco, and Tlapacoya were locations where the sport took place. They however used perishable grounds or on fleeting courts. 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 the Spanish conquistador to perform for King Charles V.
There were several different variations of the ballgame which emerged over some time in Mesoamerica. The most common type of 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 the Aztec game, victory was achieved by hitting the opposite team’s 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 recreation. This is because the game was mainly associated with rituals where those who won were rewarded with wealthy gifts while losers offered a sacrifice to the gods as a final price. On the other hand, the game was also played for leisure mainly by women and their children. The ballgame was also used as a way of solving conflicts between Mesoamerican societies. Instead of engaging in battle, the groups considered resolving their disputes in the ballcourts (Clendinnen 2003).
Even though 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 playground to the alley. 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. Other courts 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 even though the ball game iconography was 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 a beach ball which weighed six to nine pounds to the size of a softball. The balls were made from rubber trees extracting latex from them and mixing 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 swampy places which acted as sacrificial areas.
The player’s uniforms had countless drawings, paintings, figurines, and stone reliefs. The 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 wooden, woven cloths or cloths with stone straps enclosed in skin or textile material. These types of clothing 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 suggest that they were either used after or before the games mainly in contexts of ritual. Despite acting as a shield, the straps and yoke were also used to grant pressure which could impel the ball back. Some players 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. Archeologists also discovered that the ballgame players wore elaborate headdresses but mainly for ritual contexts not for protection. Some Dainzu reliefs depict that capes and masks were also used by the ballgame players while Teotihuacan murals depict that men used to be in skirts while playing the stick-ball (Schwartz 2000).
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. The ball courts were uniquely designed.
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.