Mesoamerican ball game

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The Mesoamerican ball game is a sport that people in Mesoamerica have played since about 1,400 B.C.E.[1] It was the first team sport in history, as far as historians know.[2]

The Olmecs, who lived from 1,200 B.C.E. to 400 B.C.E., played the Mesoamerican ballgame.[2] They may have created the game.[3] The ancient Mayans played the game; they called it pitz in Classical Maya.[2] Later, the Aztecs played it; in their language, Nahuatl, they called the game ōllamaliztli.[4]

In some parts of Mexico, indigenous people still play a more modern version of the game, called ulama.[5][6] This means that people have played the Mesoamerican ballgame for over 3,400 years – longer than any other sport in history.[6] The Mesoamerican ballgame was also the first sport in history ever to use a rubber ball.[6]

Rules[change | change source]

The game's goal was to shoot a ball through a stone hoop about 35 inches (89 centimetres) wide.[7] The ball, called an ulli, was made out of rubber. It weighed about 9 pounds (4.1 kilograms),[7] about as much as a brick. The court, called a tlachtili, was around 100 to 200 feet (30 to 61 metres) long. It had a wall on each side. The stone hoops hung on these walls.[7]

The court was usually in the shape of an “I,” although the shape was sometimes different. A line ran down the center of the court. From that line, the floor sloped to meet the walls.[7]

The players were only allowed to use their heads, elbows, legs, and hips to hit the ball. The ball was not allowed to touch the ground, so the players often dove to avoid losing points. If one of the teams got the ball through the stone hoop, the game was over and that team won. However, this was very hard to do, since the stone hoops could be as high as 20 feet (6.1 metres) off the ground.[8] Since getting the ball through the hoop was uncommon, a team could also score points by hitting one of six markers alongside the edges of the court.[9]

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.[7]

Sometimes, city-states would play the game instead of going to war with each other. The city-state whose team won the game would rule over the losing city-state.[4] Winning or losing a game could turn into an excuse to start an attack or try an assassination.[10]p.97

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.[10]p.173

The game's religious meaning was linked to the Mayan and Aztec practices of human sacrifice. Sometimes, the Mayans would make prisoners of war play the game, and would sacrifice them if they lost.[11] However, Mayan art suggests that Mayan ballplayers, maybe team captains, were sacrificed too.

The Aztecs also sacrificed losing teams (or, according to some historians, winning teams) after some games.[12] 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 actual head or skull of a sacrificed person was used as a ball in the game.[11]

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.[5]

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.[6]

References[change | change source]

  1. Hill, Warren D.; Blake, Michael; & Clark, John E. (1998). "Ball court design dates back 3,400 years". Nature 392 (6679): 878–879. doi:10.1038/31837.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Owen, Michael (2011). The Maya Book of Life: Understanding the Xultun Tarot. Kahurangi Press. pp. 284-285. ISBN 978-0473119898.
  3. Miller, Mary Ellen; & Taube, Karl A. (1993). The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya: An Illustrated Dictionary of Mesoamerican Religion. Thames & Hudson. p. 42. ISBN 978-0500050682.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Santley, Robert S.; Berman, Michael J.; & Alexander, Rani T. (1993). "The Politicization of the Mesoamerican Ballgame and its Implications for the Interpretation of the Distribution of Ballcourts in Central Mexico". In Vernon L. Scarborough & David R. Wilcox (eds.). The Mesoamerican Ballgame. University of Arizona Press. pp. 3-24. ISBN 978-0816513604.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Solís Olguín, Felipe R.; Velasco Alonso, Roberto; Rochín, Roberto (2010) (in Spanish). Ulama: El juego de la vida y de la muerte. Universidad Autónoma de Sinaloa. p. 8. ISBN 978-6070028663.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 Kte’pi, Bill (April 2, 2009). "Spanish America". In Rodney P. Carlisle (ed.). Encyclopedia of Play in Today’s Society. 2. SAGE Publications. pp. 672-673. ISBN 978-1452266107.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 Cóttrill, Jaime C. (2009). "Aztec Ball Game". Aztec-History.com.
  8. Smith, Michael E. (2002). The Aztecs (2nd ed.). Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell Publishers. p. 232. ISBN 978-0631230168.
  9. Shelton, Anthony A. (2003). "The Aztec Theatre State and the Dramatization of War". In Tim Cornell and Thomas B. Allen (eds.). War and Games. New York: Boydell Press. pp. 107-108. ISBN 978-0-85115-870-9.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Taladoire, Eric; Benoit Colsenet (1991). "'Bois Ton Sang, Beaumanior': The Political and Conflictual Aspects of the Ballgame in the Northern Chiapas Area". In Vernon Scarborough and David R. Wilcox (eds.). The Mesoamerican Ballgame. Tucson: University of Arizona Press. ISBN 0-8165-1180-2. OCLC 22765562.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Schele, Linda; Miller, Mary Ellen (1986). The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art. Fort Worth, Texas: Kimball Art Museum. pp. 243-249.
  12. Wilkerson, S. Jeffrey K. (1993). "And Then They Were Sacrificed: The Ritual Ballgame of Northeastern Mesoamerica Through Time and Space". In Vernon L. Scarborough & David R. Wilcox (eds.). The Mesoamerican Ballgame. University of Arizona Press. pp. 47-52. ISBN 978-0816513604.