I was delighted a month or two ago to read a BBC article with the headline “Mexico revives 3,000-year-old ancient ball game.” (I think “3,000-year-old ancient” is a bit redundant, but whatever.) I was much less delighted at how hard it was to find any other news sources covering the event, but I eventually manage to scrape together a few references. It’s much easier to consider the broad history of the game, since there’s more coverage of that online, but here’s what I’ve found about both.
In mid-April, a league of teams from all over Mexico and Belize met in Teotihuacan for the finals of the oldest known team and ball sport, often called “the Mesoamerican ballgame” but known by other names including pitz (Classical Maya) and ulama (from the Nahuatl ōllamaliztli). This is only the second final since 2006, so it’s hardly a mainstream organized sport, but it’s been played in an unbroken tradition stretching for millennia. Archaeologists have found nearly 1,500 ballcourts, the earliest dating back to around 1400 BC in Paso de la Amada on the Pacific coast, and even earlier evidence of this game or ones like it in the form of rubber balls.
The game, apparently played by both men and women, may have originated in Soconusco (near Paso de la Amada), but another strong possibility is the Olmec heartland along the southern end of the Gulf of Mexico. This is based partly on the association of the region and the Olmec people with rubber production—Olmeca, the Aztec name, means “rubber people,” sharing the root for “rubber” with the name ōllamaliztli. The oldest rubber balls, from 1600-1700 BC, have been found in the Olmec heartland, bolstering the idea that some sort of game existed, even if the artifacts we’ve found were only ritual or symbolic. Wherever it started, the game became a feature of almost all Mesoamerican cultures, played from El Salvador to (possibly) Arizona.
As you would expect from such a wide geographic and temporal range, there’s archaeological evidence for multiple versions of the game, some allowing the use of sticks or bats (usually a smaller ball) and some using body parts only, such as forearms and hips. Modern ulama can be played in any of these variations, but the most popular one, considered by many to be the quintessential form, calls for hips only. This sounds really painful to me, in spite of the hip guards that are a traditional part of the gear. Check out this video from the recent finals, in which gameplay starts around 0:30, for some very athletic and difficult-looking maneuvers!
Another interesting (by which I mean ridiculously difficult) aspect of the game is the addition of goal rings, which show up in ballcourts of the Terminal Classic era (c. 800-1000 AD). This isn’t an unusual feature in and of itself, but these rings weren’t just for scoring points—getting the ball through one would automatically win you the game. They were also usually located meters away from the playing field or alley (horizontally, vertically, or both) and only slightly larger than the ball itself. You can imagine how difficult it would be to score a goal this way, especially with the hips-only version.
Because of the improbability of being able to end the game this way, it’s likely that in reality games were won by the first team to reach a certain score. Historical records indicate that points were scored in various ways, probably corresponding to different versions of the game. Teams could score points if the opposing team hit the ball out of bounds, failed to return it, touched it with the wrong body part, or let the ball enter their endzone. Early endzones were open, but some later I-shaped courts have enclosed endzones that are wider than the playing alley, clearly meant to serve an important function in the game.
This is glossing over the many variations we’ve discovered in ballcourts and implied rules, but what we see suggests that people agreed the game was difficult and dangerous enough without insisting on a nearly-impossible feat to end a match. Below is a simplified version of one type of court, showing benches on either side of the playing field, or alley, and sloping aprons behind them leading up to vertical walls where the goal rings hung at a more-than-respectable distance. Other types of court feature more vertical surfaces, sometimes with reliefs depicting game-related scenes from legend or history.
A lot of attention is given to the historical involvement of human sacrifice in the Mesoamerican ballgame, but it wasn’t necessarily a widespread feature. Yes, it did happen in some cases, but far from all of them, and though most scholars agree that the sacrifice was a final defeat for the losers, a few argue that it may have been an honor for the winners instead. Either way, the game was much more than an excuse for ritual sacrifice, though its significance varied among cultures.
Among other things, the ballgame held religious meaning as a symbol of the sun’s movement through the heavens, as well as the perpetual battle between day and night, or life and death. On a more practical level, many scholars believe the game served as a proxy for warfare and settling disputes; good evidence for this interpretation is that multiple regions known for their historic political instability have many more ballcourts than areas known for their relative stability and unity. It seems clear that the ballgame played a significant cultural role, in the familiar ways that sports shape our communities today and then some.
These days human sacrifice and defusing threats of war aren’t really part of the world of sports, but the game itself might still look pretty familiar to the pre-Columbian Mesoamericans. The finals in Teotihuacan were played in traditional hip-protecting gear and, according to general ulama rules, probably went to eight points (no rings necessary).
More than just being good clean hip-bruising fun, the game itself is also a symbol of pride and respect for the cultures that shaped it. Listen to one of the players in this video—my Spanish is rusty, but he clearly says how proud he is to be playing, that this particular game is special for him and that he feels it’s “something of ours.” It’s hard to think of a better reason to get out on the field.
[There’s a lot out there on ulama, past and present! (More past, but in a reversal of the usual methods, you can find the current stuff if you dig far enough.) For a good read about both modern ulama and its historical roots, check out this short blog, then go to Wikipedia to compare what we know about the game in different Mesoamerican civilizations. Here’s a brief discussion of preserving the Sinaloa tradition of crafting ulama balls from rubber. Lastly, this excerpt from a full book chapter mentions some other indigenous American ball sports to look into!]