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The Mayan Ball Game

A historic ball game, played with the earliest rubber balls ever discovered, is estimated to date back around 3,000 years. Archaeologists unearthed the oldest-known gaming court, built in around 1400 BC, at Paso de la Amada, in the Mexican state of Chiapas.

They believe different versions of the game were played around Mesoamerica after ancient rubber balls were found at an Olmec sacrificial bog. The Olmec people lived on Mexico's Gulf Coast from 1600 BC to 350 BC, in today's modern states of Tabasco and Veracruz.

Best-known for their giant 20-tonne statues of carved stone heads to celebrate their rulers, the Olmec’s are also thought to have invented the ball game. Eventually, environmental factors made it impossible for the Olmecs to carry on living in the region.

However, the game was still being played there at the time of the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire in 1519. The sport was obviously important to the early civilisations, including the Olmecs, Mayans and Aztecs, as they had to import rubber to make the balls.

Rubber trees didn't grow in the highlands, so the people would import 16,000 sheets of raw rubber every six months from the Gulf's lowland region. Much of the imported rubber was used for making balls. The name for the people who lived in the lowlands, the Olmeca, translated to "rubber people".

Mayan Ball Game

© TiComoLaFuera / Adobe Stock


Game rules

More than 1,300 Mayan ball courts, of the same shape but various sizes, have been found in Mesoamerica. The game was played on a court which comprised a stone structure containing a narrow playing field. Two walls flanked the long-playing area.

The rules of the ball game are not precisely known. Historic Spanish documents state it was played by two teams of between two and four players each. The idea was to keep the ball in the air by hitting it with the upper arms, hips, or thighs while bouncing it off the side walls. Players weren't permitted to use their hands or feet. The ball was made of solid rubber, which was extremely hard, so it was commonplace for players to be injured.

Spanish writer Diego Durán stated the players suffered severe bruising. Some were actually killed after they were hit in the stomach or face by the solid ball at great speed.

There was evidence that in some Mayan games, each side wall had a stone ring in the centre. If a player managed to pass the ball through the ring, they won immediately. However, the ring was barely bigger than the ball, so players seldom won in this way and evidence suggests most games were won on points.


Different versions

The two main versions of the game were played by the Mayans and the Aztecs. The Mayan version was named Pitz. Sculptures from the era suggest the ball ranged in size from an American softball to a football. The walls of the Mayan ball courts were often sloping, which made it easier to keep the ball in play.

Earlier courts were relatively small, with the oldest Ceremonial Court at Tikal measuring only 52 ft by 16 feet. A later court, the Great Ball Court at Chichen Itza, is much bigger, measuring 545 ft by 223 ft.

In the later Aztec version of the game, players won points if the ball hit the wall at the opposite end. They lost points if the ball touched the ground, especially if it bounced more than twice before being returned to the opposing team.


Rubber balls

The people of Mesoamerica made rubber using natural latex. Ancient rubber makers would harvest the latex from rubber trees, mixing it with juice from morning glory vines. This created a chemical reaction which made the solid latex less brittle.

The ancient Mesoamericans had invented rubber balls for sports. In modern days, scientists have experimented by mixing the latex and juice to create a rubber that bounces well for ball games. Other types of rubber, depending on the mix, are more solid and hardwearing.

Archaeologists have found preserved rubber balls in bogs. They believe rubber was also a symbol of fertility for the people of the Mesoamerican region, but they admit much of their work is based on speculation, as there's little documented evidence.

Scientists who experimented with the raw materials found it took only 10 minutes for the rubber to form when mixed with juice, so the craftsmen had only a short period of time to make rubber balls. The strips of rubber were wrapped round in layers to form the ball shape.


Religious significance

The Mayan ball game, although a sport, was also played as a ritual game on occasion, with dire consequences for the loser, who would be sacrificed to the gods. There is evidence his skull would be used as the core of the new rubber ball for the next ritual game.

The ball court was important in the religious beliefs of the Mayan people. In ritual terms, it represented a stepping stone between everyday life and the supernatural. The act of keeping the ball in the air represented maintaining the orbit of the sun.

When a Mayan lord sponsored the game, or took part himself, it had greater significance. At these ritual games, Mayan folklore would be re-enacted. The lords of the underworld would be defeated and human life would be saved. The climax of such rituals was the sacrifice of an imprisoned man.

As well as human sacrifices, the Mayan people would sacrifice their most treasured possessions to the gods, such as gold, turquoise and jade jewellery and other valuable items.


End of an era

The ball game eventually came to an end after the Spanish conquests in the 16th century. The game attracted big crowds, accompanied by betting. People were losing all their money and even ending up as slaves when they were left with nothing.

The Spanish banned the game for good, not only because of the dangers posed by the large, passionate crowds but also because of the human sacrifices, as it wasn't something they felt should continue. It marked the end of an era and now, only the relics of the ancient courts and remnants of rubber remain.

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