To talk of the Mesoamerican ball game is,
perhaps, being a little simplistic since the game has a
history extending over 3,600 years and was played in Mexico (tlachtli)
where it was seen and described by the conquistadors, by the
Mayans (pok-ta-pok) and by the islanders of the Greater
Antilles (Batey). In all, the ball game is known to have
extended as far south as Paraguay and north into what is now
Arizona. Over this time scale and involving so many different
and developing cultures it is inevitable that local variations
would appear. The ‘game’ which the conquistadors saw and wrote
of in the 16th century certainly seems to have differed in
several ways from those played much earlier in the area’s
design of ballcourt at Yagul.
at Chichin Itza showing unusual vertical wall.
The earliest known ball court is at Paso de la Amada in Mexico
and radiocarbon dating has shown it to be about 3600 years old.
This places it historically at the interface between the Mokaya
and Olmec cultures and only a few hundred years after the early
hunter-gatherers had settled into stable residential communities.
It is likely that the earliest versions of the game were played
on flat courts, as indeed they are in Mexico today, and that the
refinement of the sloping sides came with the establishment of
Our knowledge of the older versions of the game is obtained from
classic art and archaeology. The ball courts were built in the
shape of a capital ‘I’ with the length varying from
that of a tennis court to a football field or longer. The central
flat strip was narrow when compared with the length and both sides
were flanked by sloping banks which were used to keep the ball
in play rather like the sloping roofs of a real tennis court.
At each end were markers, possibly indicating the ‘goal’
line and a later refinement was the incorporation of eyes or rings,
one each side, set in the top of the sloping banks. Most courts
were aligned north-south and some locations had a number of different
sized ones. The record seems to be held by El Tajin in Veracruz
which had eleven whilst one of the most famous Mayan ruined towns
known today, Chichen Itza, had at least five.
Teams varied in size from two to six and the general idea seemed,
initially, to get the solid rubber ball, which varied in size
from ten to thirty cm diameter, past the opponents ‘goal
line’. The ball had to be kept in the air and all parts
of the body could be used except the hands and feet. Each player
wore protective clothing, knee and elbow pads, as well as a carved
wooden or leather ‘yoke’ round his waist with which,
by swivelling his hips, he could hit the ball with considerable
force. (Although all experts agree that hands and feet could not
be used, two 8th century Mayan sculptures show players holding
the ball – half time?)
court at Uxmal. Note the ring below the arrow.
Points were scored for ‘goals’ and also if the opponents
allowed the ball to touch the central flat playing area. With
the advent of the rings, additional points were scored if the
ball could be passed through the ring. By the time that the Spanish
saw the game being played, they were treated to an ‘all
fun and games’ version with one writer describing how it
was the custom for any player who succeeded in putting the ball
through a ring to be awarded the clothes and jewellery of any
spectator(s) whom he could catch. Cortez was so amused by the
game that he took two teams (and some balls) back to Spain with
him where they were painted by the German artist, Weiditz.
Although the Spanish were presented with a purely sporting activity,
a study of Mayan carvings and pottery shows that the history of
the ball game had considerable religious significance and was
also bound up with ritual sacrifice. For instance, a relief in
Izapa shows a decapitated (defeated) ball game player at the feet
of the victor who holds his decapitated head whilst a relief at
El Tajin shows the classic Mayan scene of the loser having his
heart cut out as an offering to the underworld to release the
Sun for another cycle. There are many references to defeated warriors
being forced to play against their captors prior to execution.
We do not know if they were freed if they won but in one illustration
the losers were rolled up into balls and then rolled down an adjacent
pyramid to their death. The use of the decapitated head, encased
in rubber, as a ball is described in the Popol Vuh.
The religious significance of the ball game is most completely
described in the Popol Vuh and the actual game, as played in the
ball court is a re-enactment of Mayan mythology with the movement
of the ball representing the cyclic journeys of the Sun and Moon
through the sky, sinking to earth only to rise again.
Whilst most ball courts are in prominent positions nears the
cultural/religious centres of towns, some have been found on at
the boundaries of adjacent kingdoms and it is believed that these
were used for battles between rulers’ champions to settle
inter-kingdom rivalries and disputes.