Mesoamerican ball game

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The Mesoamerican ball game was a sport played by the peoples of Mesoamerica beginning around 1,000 B.C.E. The Olmecs may have created the game. Later, the Mayans and the Aztecs played it. The Aztec version of the game was called ullamalitzli.

In some parts of Mexico, indigenous people still play a more modern version of the game, called ulama.

Rules[change | change source]

The game's goal was to shoot a ball through a stone hoop about 35 inches wide.[1] The ball, called an ulli, was made out of rubber. It weighed about nine pounds,[1] about as much as a brick. The court, called a tlachtili, was around 100 to 200 feet long. It had a wall on each side. The stone hoops hung on these walls.[1]

The court was usually in the shape of an “I,” although the shape was sometimes different.[2] A line ran down the center of the court. From that line, the floor sloped to meet the walls.

The players were only allowed to use their heads, elbows, legs, and hips to hit the ball.[2] The ball was not allowed to touch the ground, so the players often dove to avoid losing points.[1] If one of the teams got the ball through the stone hoop, the game was over and that team won. However, a team could also score points by hitting one of six markers alongside the edges of the court.[1]

Gambling[change | change source]

Gambling played a large part in the culture surrounding the ballgame. People could bet nearly anything on which team would win the game. Some ancient people bet things like beautiful feathers. Others bet children or even their own lives. The losers sometimes sold themselves into slavery just so they could pay off their debt.

Winning or losing a game could turn into an excuse to start an attack or try an assassination. This was especially true when rival city-states played against each other. Sometimes one of the teams was even sacrificed after the game.

Religious importance[change | change source]

The Mesoamerican ballgame also held a very important religious meaning. In Aztec culture, for example, the game was meant to represent the combat that happened every day on the "ball court" in the underworld, where the sun fought with the night to get across.

The game's religious meaning was linked to the Aztec practice of human sacrifice. The ancient Aztecs believed that without human sacrifice, the sun would stop and the earth would be plunged into darkness. Sometimes, ancient Aztecs would decorate the ball court with the skulls of people who had been sacrificed. The ball itself was a symbol of a sacrificed person's head. Sometimes, the losing team (or, according to some historians, the winning team) was sacrificed after the game.[1]

Modern version[change | change source]

In modern times, the Aztec ballgame changed into ulama. People still play this game in a few communities in the Mexican state of Sinaloa.

Ulama uses temporary courts, made by drawing thick lines in the dirt. There are three different ways to play ulama. In the different versions of the game, players may use their hips, forearms, or paddles to hit the ball.

References[change | change source]