The Mesoamerican ball game is the oldest known sport in the Americas. It originated in southern Mexico approximately 3700 years ago. For many pre-Columbian cultures, such as the Olmec, Maya, Zapotec and Aztec, it was a ritual, political and social activity that involved the whole population. The game took place in specific I-shaped buildings, recognizable in many archaeological sites, called ballcourts. There are an estimated 1,300 known ballcourts in Mesoamerica.
Mesoamerican Ball Game Origins
The earliest evidence of the ball game comes to us from ceramic figurines of ball players recovered from El Opeño, Michoacan state in western Mexico about 1700 BC. Fourteen rubber balls were found at the shrine of El Manatí in Veracruz, deposited over a long period beginning abut 1600 BC. The oldest example of a ballcourt discovered to date was built about 1400 BC, at the site of Paso de la Amada, an important Formative site in the state of Chiapas in southern Mexico; and the first consistent imagery, including ballplaying costumes and paraphernalia is known from the San Lorenzo Horizon of the Olmec civilization, ca 1400-1000 BC.
Archaeologists agree that the origin of the ball game is linked with the origin of ranked society. The ball court at Paso de la Amada was constructed near the chief's house and, later on, the famous colossal heads were carved depicting leaders wearing ballgame helmets. Even if the locational origins are not clear, archaeologists believe that the ball game represented a form of social display and whoever had the resources to organize it gained social prestige.
According to historic records, we know that the Maya and Aztecs used the ball game to solve hereditary issues, wars, to foretell the future and to take important ritual and political decisions.
Where Was the Ball Game played?
The ball game was played in specific open constructions called ball courts. These usually were laid out in the form of a capital I, consisting of two parallel high buildings that delimited a central court. The lateral platforms had sloping walls and benches, where the ball bounced. Ball courts were usually surrounded by other buildings and facilities, most of which probably were of perishable materials; however, masonry constructions usually involved surrounding low walls, small shrines, and platforms from which people observed the game.
Almost all main Mesoamerican cities had at least one ball court. Interestingly, no ball court has yet been identified at Teotihuacan, the major metropolis of Central Mexico. An image of a ball game is visible on the murals of Tepantitla, one of Teotihuacan's residential compounds, but no ball court. The Terminal Classic Maya city of Chichen Itzá has the largest ball court; and El Tajin, a center that flourished between the Late Classic and the Epiclassic on the Gulf Coast, had as many as 17 ball courts.
How Was the Mesoamerican Ball Game Played?
Evidence suggests that different types of games, all played with a rubber ball, existed in ancient Mesoamerica, but the most widespread was the "hip game". This was played by two opposing teams, with a variable number of players. The aim of the game was to put the ball into the opponent's end zone without using hands or feet: but only hips could touch the ball. The game was scored using different point systems; but we have no direct accounts, either indigenous or European, that precisely describe the techniques or rules of the game.
Ball games were violent and dangerous and players wore protective gear, usually made of leather, such as helmets, knee pads, arm and chest protectors and gloves. Archaeologists call the special protection constructed for the hips "yokes", for their resemblance to animal yokes.
A further violent aspect of the ball game involved human sacrifices, which were often an integral part of the activity. Among the Aztec, decapitation was a frequent end for the losing team. It has also been suggested that the game was a way to resolve conflicts among polities without a real warfare. The Classic Maya origin story told in the Popol Vuh describes the ballgame as a contest between humans and underworld deities, with the ballcourt respresenting a portal to the underworld.
However, ball games were also the occasion for communal events such as feasting, celebration and gambling.
Who Was Involved in the Games?
The entire community was differently involved in a ball game:
- Ballplayers: The players themselves were probably men of noble origins or aspirations. The winners gained both wealth and social prestige.
- Sponsors: Ball court construction as well as game organization required some form of sponsorship. Affirmed leaders, or people who wanted to be leaders, considered ball game sponsorship an opportunity to emerge or reaffirm their power.
- Ritual Specialists: Ritual specialists often performed religious ceremonies before and after the game.
- Audience: All sorts of people participated as spectators to the event: local commoners and people coming from other towns, nobles, sport supporters, food sellers and other vendors.
- Gamblers: Gambling was an integral component of ball games. Bettors were both nobles and commoners, and sources tell us that the Aztec had very strict regulations about bet payments and debts.
A modern version of Mesoamerican ball game, called ulama, is still played in Sinaloa, Northwest Mexico. The game is played with a rubber ball hit only with the hips and resemble a net-less volleyball.
Blomster JP. 2012. Early evidence of the ballgame in Oaxaca, Mexico. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Early Edition.
Diehl RA. 2009. Death Gods, Smiling Faces and Colossal Heads: Archaeology of the Mexican Gulf Lowlands. Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies Inc: FAMSI. (accessed in November 2010)
Hill WD, and Clark JE. 2001. Sports, Gambling, and Government: America's First Social Compact? American Anthropologist 103(2):331-345.