Mesoamerican Ball Game

01
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Mesoamerican Ball Games

Ball Court players all decked out in headdress and protective gear.
Ball Court players all decked out in headdress and protective gear. a2gemma

Around 3500 years ago, Mesoamericans began to play organized team sports centered on a bouncing rubber ball. The ball court was a conspicuous feature of the city centers in classical Mesoamerica. Ball games, handball, stickball, hipball, kickball, and trickball, were well attended. They offered wealth and prestige to the winners, but losers sometimes paid the ultimate price -- as a sacrifice to their gods. Even winners might be injured because the ball was heavy and dangerous, as Spanish conquerors, amazed by the speed and movement of the rubber balls, wrote. So, while the spectators wore almost nothing against the heat of the area -- just turbans and loincloths/skirts, the players wore elaborate protective gear as well as a "yoke" around the waist to propel the ball.

It is unclear whether or not women played in the ball games.

"Sports, Gambling, and Government: America's First Social Compact?" Warren D. Hill and John E. Clark American Anthropologist, Vol. 103, No. 2 (Jun. 2001).

The photo shows ball court players all decked out in headdress and protective gear.

02
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Maya Ball Court, Chichén Itzá

Maya Ball Court, Chichen Itza
Maya Ball Court, Chichen Itza. Ruben Charles

Ancient Mesoamerican players would have played a ball game using a rubber ball on a masonry field in an I-shaped court. Hoops on either side are visible.

We don't know the details of the ancient ball game played in ancient Mesoamerica. The rings or hoops on either side are thought to be a late innovation. Models found on the game show what appear to be two teams of three. The ball's material is known, but not its size although it probably weighed from between a half and 7 kg. Some depictions of it show it improbably large. Presumably, it could be no bigger than the inside perimeter of the hoops. At least one ball contained a human skull.

A ball game area like this would have been found in each of the cities of the Maya. Like today, it would have been a major local expenditure but was probably also very popular. Clay models from western Mexico show the immediate viewing area crowded, with entire families in attendance, sitting on the ledges. There are markers on the field. It appears that balls were to be kept in motion and were hit using hips, for which reason they were protected.

Women may have played the game.

"Review: Uses of Sport," by Karl A. Taube. Science, New Series, Vol. 256, No. 5059 (May 15, 1992), pp. 1064-1065.

03
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Ceramic Ball Game From Western Mexico

Ceramic Ball Game From Western Mexico
A clay scene from Western Mexico shows what a ball game was like. Ilhuicamina

This ceramic scene from Western Mexico shows spectators dressed in loincloths or skirts and wearing turbans. They sit crowded together in families to watch the game, which seems to be played by two teams of three people.

04
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Ball Player Disc

Ball Player Disc - From Chinkultic, Chiapas
Ball Player Disc - From Chinkultic, Chiapas. mudanddark

This lovely disc shows a ball player with headdress, yoke, and protection

It's no coincidence that the organized team sport began 3500 years ago in Mesoamerica. That was where rubber was found. The ball could vary in size from site to site (probably weighing between .5 and 7 kg) and could be hollow to increase the bounce. Discs like this were used to divide up the playing field.

[Source: www.ballgame.org/sub_section.asp?section=2&sub_section=3 "The Mesoamerican Ball Game"]

05
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Xiuhtecuhtli

Aztec god Xiuhtecuhtli with an offering of rubber balls.
Aztec God Xiuhtecuhtli With an Offering of Rubber Balls. Codex Borgia

Rubber balls weren't just for ball games. They were also offered as sacrifices to the gods.

The picture shows the Aztec god Xiuhtecuhtli, as one of the nine Lords of the Night, from the Codex Borgia.

06
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Ball Hoop

Ball Hoop at Chichen Itza
Ball Hoop at Chichen Itza. Bruno Girin

We don't know the details of the ancient team sport played with a rubber ball in ancient Mesoamerica. There seem to have been several, the most common being some sort of "hipball". A clay model found of the game shows what appear to be two teams of three, with possibly a referee and goals marked on the field. The ball hoop is thought to have been a late addition to the game. The size of the ball is thought to have varied from between about .5 and 7 kg. It would have had to have been able to fit through the hoops. There is one hoop on the right and another on the left of the field. It is thought that the ball was always supposed to be kept in the air and that no hands were allowed -- as in modern soccer.

07
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Sacrifice Scene at El Tajin

Tajin Sacrifice Scene
Stone carving from main ball court at El Tajin, Veracruz, Mexico shows a human heart sacrifice. Ilhuicamina

A stone carving from the main ball court at El Tajin, Veracruz, Mexico shows a scene of human heart sacrifice.

We don't know the details of the ancient team sport played with a rubber ball in ancient Mesoamerica. Rings or hoops on either side of the ball field are thought to be a late innovation. A clay model found of the game shows what appear to be two teams of three, with possibly a referee and goals marked on the field.

The sacrifice of the loser may sometimes have been part of the Maya version of the ball game. This carving from El Tajin shows the victim, drugged with maquey, shown growing in the background along with death gods. Around the victim stand priests in the garb of ballplayers. The one on the right is cutting out the victim's heart.

[Source: www.ballgame.org/sub_section.asp?section=2&sub_section=3 "The Mesoamerican Ball Game"]

08
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Chichén Itzá Sacrifice at the Ball Game

Chichén Itzá Sacrifice at the Ball Game.
Chichén Itzá Sacrifice at the Ball Game. receoin

This stone relief from a ball court at Chichén Itzá shows ritual sacrifice by decapitation of the losing player. The painting above makes the scene clearer.

The head of the sacrificial victim (presumably, the losing player) is held in one hand of someone presumed to be a winning player. Blood spurts out from the head and the trunk, where it appears as serpents. The winner's other hand holds the sacrificial flint knife. His knees have protective pads.

Although the head or heart was selected for the sacrifice as valuable objects, some skulls may have been used for the interior of the rubber balls to make them lighter. The rubber was then wrapped around the skull.

[Source: www.ballgame.org/sub_section.asp?section=2&sub_section=3 "The Mesoamerican Ball Game"]

09
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Ball Court Observer's Box

Ball Court Observer's Box
Ball Court Observer's Box. a2gemma

It's likely that the ball court could be seen from many vantage points throughout the city.

We don't know the details of the ancient team sport played with a rubber ball in ancient Mesoamerica. Rings or hoops on either side of the ball field are thought to be a late innovation. A clay model found of the game shows what appear to be two teams of three, with possibly a referee and goals marked on the field. There were probably games played one on one, as well.

Warren D. Hill and John E. Clark say that winners gained wealth not from their earnings, but by betting it. Even rulership of a community was a suitable wager in the ballgame. Certain wins may have entitled the winner to the cloaks and jewels of the spectators or just of those who had supported the losers. (Could that be why the figurines in the ceramic group attended the game nearly naked?)