The history of ball games in Meso-America – a cultural region that encompasses parts of modern-day Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica – stretches back millennia. Such games were fundamental for the political, social and ritual life of the communities and empires that flourished in the region. Indeed, anthropologist Paul Kirchhoff, who coined the term “Meso-America”, included the playing of ball games in his list of traits that defined the Meso-American cultural tradition.
THE BALL COURT
The main feature of the Meso-American ball court was the 80-metre-long central alley flanked on either side by a raised platform.
Although not a part of early ball courts, players’ task was made more difficult by the addition of a ring high on the side of the platform, through which the ball had to pass.
The balls were made out of solid rubber, ranged from 13 to 30 centimetres in diameter and weighed between 0.5 and 7 kilograms.
Professional players were a feature of the Meso-American ball games and from 16th-century Spanish sources, we know that kings and noblemen would retain their own squads. By playing games, political rivalries and other disputes could be settled without resorting to all-out war.
If the ball was put through the hoop, the game was over and the player who achieved this great feat would be celebrated and receive valuable gifts, such as a finely woven mantle or precious feathers. But it is clear from Spanish descriptions of Aztec games that this was very rare. Normally, games would be decided according to different criteria that remain largely unknown.
We cannot be absolutely sure of how the scoring system worked in Meso-American ball games, but there are various references as to how the scores were kept. One source lies in the game of ulama, which is still practised today, albeit largely as a tourist attraction. It reveals that if a player hits the ball twice or with the wrong part of the body, the opposition gain a point; if a team pass the ball beyond the end line, they win a point; and, if the ball does not pass the middle line of the court, the opposing team receive a point.
Other references indicate that the aim was to become the first to reach nine points, although getting there was not quite so straightforward. At certain junctures, an urra was contested,during which points could be both won and lost simultaneously, meaning that the tables could suddenly be turned. For example, with an urra, if Team A led 3-1 but lost the next point, Team A’s score would plummet to zero and Team B would gain one point. Thus, the score could go from 3-1 to 0-2 in a flash.
THE 3,600-YEAR-OLD BALLS
Between 1988 and 1994, archaeologists working for Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History made a series of unprecedented discoveries at the archaeological site of El Manatí in the Mexican state of Veracruz. Located in a swampy region, this was an ancient ceremonial sacrificial and burial site of the Olmec culture. The unique boggy soil conditions of the land ensured the preservation of perishable materials that would not otherwise have survived. Precious gifts were offered to the gods, among them the best examples of Meso-American crafts and artistry. Along with polished jade axes and carved wooden busts, the archaeologists found a collection of 12 solid rubber balls.
Radiocarbon dating showed that the rubber balls were made in around 1600 BC, making them the oldest evidence of the production and use of rubber in the world. Because of the difference in sizes of the balls, it is possible that they were intended as offerings rather than for use in a specific form of the Meso-American ball games. Extensive archaeological, ethnographic and chemical research has given us a deep insight into how these rubber balls were constructed and the technological knowledge that was necessary to create these amazing objects.
The rubber balls from El Manatí were made from the latex of the Castilla elastica, a rubber tree native to southern Mexico. In order to increase the elasticity of the ball so that it would spring off the hip and bounce higher into the air, Meso-American rubber producers added juice from a morning glory vine, Ipomoea alba. The craftspeople making these balls had extensive knowledge of the material and adjusted the ratios of latex and sap to fit their needs. For rubber balls, the ratio of morning glory sap to rubber tree latex was 1:1, which provided maximum elasticity. By contrast, rubber sandal soles featured three times more latex than sap, ensuring maximum durability.
THE ART OF VERACRUZ
Throughout Meso-American history, the ball games have been represented in different art forms, ranging from ceramic sculptures to engraved stelae, and from carvings in stone to painted vases. Of all the art dedicated to the hip-ball games, however, one set of objects stands out and gives us a valuable insight as to the costumes, regalia and rituals associated with them.
In Veracruz, on the southern Gulf Coast of present-day Mexico, there are a large number of objects known as the yugo, palma and hacha ritual complex. Ball-game art achieved its greatest splendour in Veracruz, especially in the Classic period of 250 to 900 AD. The objects represent a collection of regalia worn by ball players during ceremonies and rituals before and after a game. The beauty with which themes are depicted in Classic Veracruz art is unsurpassed.
Yugos, or “yokes”, are U-shaped stone objects that derive their name from their resemblance to the yokes placed over the necks of draft animals. Since there were no draft animals in pre-Columbian Meso-America, the yugos are probably stone versions of wooden or leather hip protectors that ball players would have worn while playing. Yugos have the longest history in Meso-America and, therefore, the widest range of iconography.
Many examples depict animals related to the underworld, such as frogs, toads and felines. Many objects have been found on burial sites and in some instances the yugos have been intentionally broken, a possible indication that the life of the object was closely linked with the life of its owner. Considering the Popol Vuh narrative, which explicitly links the ball games with the underworld, this association between ball-game regalia and the netherworld is perhaps unsurprising.
Hachas, from the Spanish word for “axe”, are thin-edged stone sculptures that were often elaborately carved into the shape of human or animal heads, and were probably worn as appendages to the “yoke”. On many of the hachas depicting human heads, the eyes are closed. Scholars have interpreted these as depictions of severed heads, representing the victims of human sacrificial rituals, often associated with the ball games throughout Meso-America. The animals most commonly depicted on hachas are birds and monkeys.
Palmas are larger stone sculptures with a shape reminiscent of a palm branch. Like hachas, palmas may have been attached to yugos as part of the ceremonial regalia. Palmas, which seem to have been a later innovation, sometimes carry images of sacrifice and decapitation; however, decorations are very diverse and many simply depict animals, plants or more abstract symbols.
THE ROLE OF RITUAL
In the Popol Vuh narrative of the creation of the universe, ball games play a very significant role. This game-playing has variously been interpreted as being related to fertility rituals, the underworld, a metaphorical representation of the movement of the sun across the sky, the death and rebirth of the Maize God, and as an interface between the world of man and the underworld.
Two themes characterise the ritual significance of the ball games. Firstly, duality – between life and death, wet and dry, and darkness and light; and secondly, fertility. Both are related to the passage of the sun and to the life cycle of maize, the staple crop that sustained the Meso-American peoples.
Undoubtedly, the ritual significance of the ball games changed over the course of the 3,000 years during which they were played across Meso-America. Hence, it is impossible to argue for one specific ritual meaning of the ball games to all Meso-American cultures across time, but they clearly played a fundamental role in religious life.
Nonetheless, it is clear that the story of the Hero Twins had a long pedigree in the Maya area, as evidenced by sculptures and relief panels depicting scenes from this story that have been found by archaeologists and dated to around 200 BC.
For a long time, the origin of the Meso-American ball games was attributed to the Olmecs, a society often considered the “mother culture” of Meso-America and dating as far back as 1500 BC. Centred on the Gulf Coast region of southern Mexico, the Olmecs first developed important Meso-American cultural characteristics such as writing and the calendar.
Research over the past 25 years, however, has called into question whether the Olmecs actually were the creators of the ball games.
Two key pieces of evidence shed light on the details surrounding the existence of ball games among early Meso-American societies: art and iconography that show ball game-related scenes and the architectural remains of ball courts on archaeological sites.
THE OLDEST BALL COURTS
BALL COURTS TAKE CENTRE STAGE
As ball courts gained prevalence, they were increasingly constructed in city centres and associated with the political and religious elites of their communities. They were not only arenas for the playing of games, but venues for religious rituals, which also had a political impact.
Depiction of a ball player dating from 300 BC to 400 AD from the culture of Jalisco, Mexico.
The ball player wears a protective belt around his waist and a pastillage on his shoulders.
The ball player’s ears, adorned with discs (tambas), indicate that he is an important dignitary.
The ball player holds a rubber ball, which he appears to throw to the players.
The ball player’s headdress is covered by a helmet with a sagittal crest.
The ball player is currently on display at the FIFA Museum.
Ceramic ball court model from Nayarit (200 BC – 500 AD). bpk Berlin/Los Angeles County Museum of Art/Art Resource, NY/Staff Photographer
Detail of the ceramic ball court model from Nayarit (200 BC – 500 AD).
Detail of the ceramic ball court model from Nayarit (200 BC – 500 AD).
Detail of the ceramic ball court model from Nayarit (200 BC – 500 AD).
Detail of the ceramic ball court model from Nayarit (200 BC – 500 AD).
BALL COURT MODELS FROM NAYARIT
Beautiful models of ball courts from the north-western Mexican state of Nayarit show that by the Late Formative period, such games had spread all over Meso-America, even reaching the north-western frontiers.
These models are among the most vivid representations of ball games from pre-Columbian Meso-America. Not only do they show the players engaged in a game – sporting some of the typical postures that can still be recognised in modern-day ulama – but they also depict spectators crowding around the playing alley, trying to get a glimpse of the action.
Who exactly these spectators were – elites, commoners, priests, foreign dignitaries, other players, the players’ families – we can only guess.
BALL GAMES AND EVERYDAY LIFE
THE CITY OF TEOTIHUACAN
Teotihuacan was the centre of what was possibly the largest empire in the history of Meso-America. Located in the Central Mexican highlands, the city flourished between around 100 BC and 550 AD.
At its peak, Teotihuacan had about 100,000 inhabitants and was the largest city in the western hemisphere. Its influence stretched from the volcanic highlands of Central Mexico to the Pacific Coast and the tropical jungles of the Maya area, some 1,100 kilometres to the south-east.
Surprisingly, this quintessential Meso-American empire seems to have placed no importance whatsoever on the ball games of the region. No ball courts have been found in the urban centre of the empire and their construction seems to have greatly diminished, or even stopped, in the vast area that the Teotihuacan empire controlled. The reason why the people of Teotihuacan did not play such games remains a question among archaeologists.
A STICK-BALL GAME
Some have argued that a ball game played with a wooden stick replaced the traditional hip-ball games as the sport of choice in Teotihuacan. Frescoes found at the Tepantitla complex in the heart of Teotihuacan depict several different ball games. One of these is indeed a stick-ball game, while another is a ball game played with the feet.
Importantly, the frescoes also feature several versions of hip-ball games, showing that while they may not have been as significant as in other places and times, these games were definitely known to the inhabitants of the city. Clearly, multiple ball games were played throughout Meso-America.
THE BALL COURTS OF THE MAYANS
The Mayan site of Cantona is famous for having had 24 ball courts, while the well-known UNESCO World Heritage site at Chichén Itzá had 13. In total, over 1,500 ball courts have been registered across Meso-America, the large majority of them dating to the Maya era of the Late Classic period.
The Mayan ball games are well known thanks to the relative wealth of evidence that exists. This includes beautifully painted ceramic pots that were placed as offerings in royal tombs, intricately carved relief panels that show scenes featuring ball players, and lifelike figurines portraying athletic ball players in their full splendour. In addition, the deciphering of Mayan hieroglyphic writing has given us access to the only texts on these ball games written by the practitioners themselves.
DECLINE OF THE MAYAN CIVILISATION
HUMAN SACRIFICES – MYTH OR REALITY?
Liverpool coach Bill Shankly once famously quipped that football was not a matter of life or death, but rather much more important than that. However, for the ball players of Meso-America, it seems it really might have been a matter of life or death. Tour guides to Mayan archaeological sites enthusiastically tell the story of the Meso-American ball games and enliven their descriptions with gory details about the sacrificial rituals that followed matches. It is very hard to determine whether it was the losers who were punished by being sacrificed or the winners who were offered up to be closer to the gods. Or were ball players ever sacrificed at all?
The association between ball games and sacrifice has its roots chiefly in pre-Columbian iconography. Ball-game iconography from El Tajín in Veracruz depicts players engaged in the process of heart extraction. Also from Veracruz are four stelae found at the ball court at Aparicio showing men dressed as ball players, wearing a yugo and a fan-shaped palma, who have been decapitated. Blood spouts from their necks in the form of seven serpents, probably symbolising fertility. Similarly, at the well-known ancient Mayan city of Chichén Itzá, a UNESCO World Heritage site on the Mexican peninsula of Yucatán, relief panels show a team of elaborately dressed ball players, one of whom has been decapitated; his head is held by another player, who faces him.
Interestingly, Spanish chroniclers of the 16th century, some of whom may have witnessed matches first-hand, make no mention at all of human sacrifice related to the ball games. It may be that these executions were related to the architectural space of the ball court, rather than to the ball games themselves. Historical re-enactments of creation stories were an important part of Meso-American ceremonial life, so we can think of the ball court as an arena for playing out the foundation stories of the relationship between the world of humans and the underworld.
Decapitation is a primary motif in the Popol Vuh. The Hero Twins are conceived when the severed head of Hun Hunahpu, hung from a tree, spits into the hand of Xquic, the Hero Twins’ mother. This episode clearly shows the regenerative and fertility-related powers of severed heads. At a later point in the story, one of the Hero Twins is decapitated himself, and the lords of Xibalba play a ball game with his head. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that images of decapitation should be found at ball courts and in ball game-related art. It is probable that the individuals put to death were not the ball players themselves, but rather captives taken in war, who were ritually executed in the sacred space of the ball court.
GAMES FOR THE MASSES
After three millennia of evolution, by the time of the Aztecs, the ball games were no longer solely a ritual matter. They were firmly rooted in the everyday structures of Meso-American societies. Games were played as a regular pastime by both elites and commoners, including on non-religious occasions such as during markets.
Games may have been imbued with profound cosmological and religious significance, but they were also a social event. They were played on an informal and formal basis inside the ball court, where spectators would gather to witness matches in which prizes, prestige and even the blessings of the gods were at stake.
THE EXCAVATION OF THE BALL COURTS AT TENOCHTITLAN
The sacred precinct in the heart of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan contained two ball courts. The smaller of the two was called Tezcatlachco (Ball Court of the Mirror) and was dedicated to Omacatl, the God of Joy, Feasts and Revelry. The larger and more important ball court was called Teotlachco (Sacred Ball Court). It was located in the centre of the sacred precinct and adjoined the temple of the Wind God Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl, close by the most important temple of the Aztec empire, the Huey Teocalli (Great House of the Divine), nowadays known as the Aztec Templo Mayor.
The Sacred Ball Court was described and drawn by the Spanish friar Bernardino de Sahagún, a Franciscan chronicler whose monumental Historia General de las Cosas de Nueva España, completed in 1577, forms the basis for much of our historical knowledge of Aztec culture. His work contains a rudimentary map of the sacred precinct, but it was not until 2014 that the exact location of the Sacred Ball Court was determined. Further research has established that the building was constructed in three stages from around 1481 to 1519. The orientation of the ball court was east-west, corresponding to the movement of the sun through the sky. The ball court’s clear associations with the temple of the Wind God, as well as its location in the middle of the Aztec holy of holies, attest to the profound and sacred importance of ball games.
There have been some important discoveries around the Sacred Ball Court, the most spectacular of which were found in 1967. These consisted of miniature stone replicas of musical instruments, together with two stone models of ball courts and two stone balls – one black and one white. Both the east-west orientation of the Sacred Ball Court and the black-white symbolism of the balls point to ball games as a struggle between the forces of day and night, light and dark, and the Sun and the Moon. The fact that these themes form a central feature of the Mayan Popol Vuh indicate that this was a pan-Meso-American idea that spanned not only thousands of kilometres, but also hundreds of years.
A FAMOUS BALL GAME
Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin, better known as Montezuma, was perhaps the most famous Aztec emperor. He ruled from 1502 to 1520 in Tenochtitlan, the site of modern-day Mexico City.
The nearby city of Texcoco was ruled by his ally Nezahualpilli, who staked his whole kingdom on the outcome of a ball game between the two. In return, Montezuma offered three turkeys! Nezahualpilli won and retained his kingdom, but Montezuma took his loss as a bad omen and a sign that the gods did not favour him. He was killed in 1520 when Hernán Cortés and his Spanish conquistadores captured Tenochtitlan.
BALL GAMES PAY THE PENALTY
The great Aztec city of Tenochtitlan fell to Cortés in 1521 and was destroyed. In its place rose a new capital, Mexico City. There followed a process of religious conversion whereby anything even remotely related to indigenous rituals was suppressed.
Unlike other European countries at this time, Spain had no history of ball-based sports but, even if the Spanish had been seasoned ball players, the hip-ball game and the indigenous rituals associated with it would still have met their demise. As Juan Bautista de Pomar, a chronicler of mixed indigenous and Spanish heritage, put it in his Relación de Texcoco of 1582, “at the moment, this game is not played any more. It was forbidden by the friars, because the game was based on witchcraft and pacts with the devil.”
At the Riviera Maya, a resort district in Yucatán, these games are played inside a replica of the famous ball court of the city of Copán, a major Classic Maya centre in Honduras. History has thus come full circle, as the spectator sport of Meso-American times is being reinvented as a spectacle for foreign visitors who come together to witness an age-old game, played by the 21st-century descendants of the ancestral players.