The Mesoamerican Ball Game: The First Team Sport in Human History

Great Ballcourt at Chichen Itza

From 1700 BC, eight different Mesoamerican civilizations adopted the ball game into their culture and a variation of it is still being played today. These civilizations include, the Olmec, the inhabitants of Western Mexico, the Teotihuacan, the Maya, the Veracruz, the Toltec the Huastec and the Aztec.

The First Ball Players

The Mesoamerican ball game began in the Olmec culture in 1400 BC, although its origins could possibly be before that. The earliest known balls come from El Manati, a sacrificial bog in the Olmec heartland along the Gulf Coast. Here they have found twelve balls, five of which have been dated between 1700 and 1600 BC. The first Olmec court dated from 600 to 400 BC although ball player figurines in the area date back to 1250 BC. However the oldest court was found in Paso de la Amada on the Pacific coast and dates back to 1400 BC. Because of finds of Olmec ball game items, it was long thought that the Olmec colossal heads represented ball players. It is now thought that they were rulers instead. By the time the Spanish conquistadors reached what we now call Mexico, the game had also been played by the people of Western Mexico, the Teotihuacans, the Mayans, the Veracruz, the Toltecs, the Huastecs and the Aztecs. And in 1528, Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes, sent an Aztec ball playing troupe to Spain to perform for King Charles V.

The Ball Game

The ball game was not standardized throughout Mesoamerica and several variations emerged over time. The most common form of the game required individual or teams of players to get the ball through a ring using their hips to pass and score. Modern ulama, however resembles volleyball without a net, where the game is won when one team fails to return the ball. Another variation comes from Teotihuacan where the ball was hit with a wooden stick, much like field hockey. In the Aztec game points were gained by hitting the wall behind the opposite team and a decisive victory was achieved by getting the ball through the ring.there are also differences in why the game was played, some games were played for recreation, while others were formal spectacles including religious ceremonies.

The Ball Court

While the game itself varied greatly with each civilization, the courts remained very similar. More than 1300 stone ball courts have been found throughout Mesoamerica and each of them are in the shape of an “I” when they are viewed from above. However, early ball courts were open-ended leaving game play purely to the alley. While the size of the ball courts vary, the length to width ratio remained at 4-to-1 for almost three thousand years. The largest known court is at the Mayan site of Chichen Itza and the smallest court was built at another Mayan site, Tikal. The cross section of each court is also unique with some having diagonal walls that allowed the ball to be banked, and others having vertical walls which made the game more difficult. Even more interestingly, some major centers like Teotihuacan and the Mayan cities of Bonampak and Tortuguero don’t have ball courts at all, despite ball game iconography being found at the sites. Like our modern stadiums, ball courts were also used for musical performances, festivals and possibly wrestling matches.

The Balls

The size of the balls ranged from the size of a softball to the size of a beach ball and could weigh from six to nine pounds. The ancient Mesoamericans made their balls by extracting “latex” from rubber trees and mixing it with the juice from Morning Glory vines. For some of the bigger balls, rubber strips were wound around human skulls to make them lighter. Beyond their use in the game, balls were often used as votive offerings to the gods with many being found in sacrificial bogs or springs.

Ball Player Uniforms

While all but the stone gear has been lost to time, there are countless paintings, drawings, stone reliefs and figurines that show how ball players dressed. For the hip game players dressed in a simple loincloth, occasionally with leather hip guards. However, some cultures used thick wicker, wood or stone girdles covered in fabric or leather. These were called yokes by earlier archeologists who mistook them for yokes used on animals. Inserted into the yoke, some players wore chest protectors called palmas. Additional protection was given by kneepads, gloves and helmets. Although ball players are often depicted wearing elaborate headdresses, but it is thought that these were used only in ritual contexts.

Cultural Aspects of the Ball Game

Beyond a sporting event the ball game held deep spiritual meaning and later games often ended in the sacrifice of the losing team, or certain members of the losing team like the captain, and therefore players gave it all they had because that game could be their last. The Mesoamericans believed that the only way to keep their gods happy was to continually sacrifice a valuable member of their city, like a ball player. The winners of these games were usually showered with riches and praise.

One theory among archeologists is that the ball game was a way to resolve conflicts between different groups. For instance, 16th century Spanish missionary Fray Juan de Torquemada, wrote that the Aztec emperor Axaycatl played Xochimilco leader, Xihutlemoc. In fact there is a correlation between the weakness of the political state and the number of ball courts at that site that proves the theory could be true. Further evidence includes the warfare imagery found frequently at ball courts.