Ulama, The Mesoamerican Ball Game: Deadly Sport of the Ancient Americas
The Mesoamerican ball game is the oldest known team sport in the world. It was practiced by ancient Pre-Columbian cultures of Central America and played almost a millennium before the establishment of the first Greek Olympic Games. A fast-paced, often brutal game tied in with religious ritual, contestants often lost their lives and human sacrifices were regular occurrences.
From ancient times until the Spanish conquest in the 16th century, the sport was not just a game but a major part of Mesoamerican culture played by the Olmec, Mayan and Aztec civilizations.
To the Mayans, it was known as Pok a Tok, to the Aztec it was Tlachtli. Today it is called Ulama. The Mesoamerican ball game was a game where the action reached unimaginable levels of violence even by today’s standards. Serious injury was common as players dove onto stone courts to keep a ball in play and would end the game bloodied and bruised. When the high-speed movement of a heavy flying ball hit a player, it could cause internal bleeding to unprotected body zones and sometimes death.
Ball player disc from Chinkultic, Chiapas (Wikimedia Commons)
Believed to have extended as far south as Paraguay and north into present day Arizona, the earliest known Mesoamerican ball court is Paso de la Amada in Mexico, which has been radiocarbon dated to around 3600 years old. This places it historically between the Mokaya and Olmec cultures and only a few hundred years after the early hunter-gatherers had settled into stable residential communities.
Roughly 1,300 Mesoamerican ball courts have been discovered and almost all the main Mesoamerican cities of antiquity had at least one. The Classic Maya city of Chichen Itzá had the largest – the Great Ballcourt, which measures 96.5 meters long (315 feet) and 30 meters wide (98 feet). By comparison, the Ceremonial Court at Tikal (in modern day Guatemala) is 16 meters by 5 meters and smaller than a tennis court. The Olmec courts were the size of a modern day football field and when seen from an aerial view, looked like a capital “I” with two perpendicular end zones at the top and bottom. They were lined with stone blocks and played on a rectangular court with slanted walls. These walls were often plastered and brightly painted. Serpents, jaguars, raptors were depicted alongside images of human sacrifice suggesting a connection to the divinity.
The ball game court of Chichen Itzá (Wikimedia Commons)
The exact rules of the game are unknown since the evidence available is garnered from the interpretations made from sculptures, art, ball courts, and glyphs. Some interpretations suggest that plays were spread out along the court and the ball was passed at a fast rate. Teams seemed to vary in size from two to six players and the object was to hit a solid rubber ball across a line. On each side of a playing alley were two long parallel walls against which a rubber ball was resounded and bounced from each team. This is similar to the game of volleyball except for the fact that players had to use their hips to return the ball and there was no net (the ball had to cross a line). The ball also had to be kept in motion, without touching the ground and in some versions of the game could not be hit with hands or feet. Later on, the Maya added two stone hoops or rings in the center of the court on either side. When a player did manage to get a ball through a ring, that usually ended the game. Points were also scored when opposing ball players missed a shot at the vertical hoops placed at the center point of the side walls, were unable to return the ball to the opposing team before it had bounced a second time, or allowed the ball to bounce outside the boundaries of the court. The team with the most points won.
Stone hoop at Chichen Itzá (Wikimedia Commons)
The large rubber ball used could weigh up to three to eight pounds and had a diameter around 25 to 37 centimeters (10 to 12 inches). This was about the size of a basketball except that the ball was more solid on the inside and could weigh a lot more. Because of this, it could inflict major bruises and if it hit someone in the wrong place hard enough, could kill them. Due to these dangers, players eventually began wearing equipment. The needs and style varied over time but most commonly, headdresses or helmets were worn to protected the head, quilted cotton pads covered the elbows and knees and stone belts known as yokes were worn around the waist or chest. These yokes or “yugos” were used to hit and pass the ball and were elaborately decorated.
Figurine of a ball player wearing thick padded clothing (Wikimedia Commons)
The Mesoamerican ballgame has its origin in the cosmos and religious beliefs of the pre-hispanic peoples. The most common interpretation saw the ball and its movement in the court paralleling the movement of the heavenly bodies in the sky. The game was viewed as a battle between the sun against the moon and stars representing the principle of lightness and darkness. If a particular game had religious meaning, the losing team could be sacrificed. In illustrations from Precolumbian books such as the Codex Borgia and on carved stone friezes decorating the walls of ballcourts at the sites of Chichen Itza and El Tajin, the decapitation of one team captain by the other, or by a priest, is clearly depicted. The sacrifice of ball-players was intimately related to the celestial cycle of the sun and moon for both the Mayans and Aztecs, as was the game itself. One of the most important episodes in the Popol Vuh (Mayan creation myth) mentions two sets of important Mayan gods going down into the Underworld to contest with Lords One and Seven Death, the gods of the underworld, and afterwards being killed and transformed into celestial bodies. The sacrifice of losing teams in the ball game was a reaffirmation of this for the Mayans, and an aspect of a compact with the Underworld which allowed the sun and moon to rise every day so long as the sacrifices were made.
Relief sculpture from the Great Ballcourt at Chichen Itza, depicting a decapitated ballplayer. (Wikimedia Commons)
When the Spanish arrived in central Mexico in the 16th century, priests and conquistadors recorded their impressions of the game. They found that among the Aztec there was a strong connection between the ball game and beheadings. Hernando Cortez’s ascribed a map of Tenochtitlan and labeled the ball court as Tzompantli (the Aztec word meaning “skull rack”). At this specific court thousands of skulls were found. The Spanish would go on to ban the game due to its pagan connotations ending thousands of years of the sport’s tradition. Today, people in Mexico still play a variant of the game that their ancestors once did. Called Ulama, it is a game played in a few communities in the Mexican state of Sinaloa. Ulama de Brazo is played in northern Sinaloa. Two teams of three face each other and instead of their hips, players hit the ball with their forearms, which are protected by padding. Ulama de Cadera is found in the south of Sinaloa. Teams tend to be made of five or more and in this case, the traditional hip is used to move the ball. Another version of the game, Ulama de Palo, is different in that the players wield a wooden racket. This particular game was a relic of the past until it was revived in the 1980s.
Modern day Pok-ta-pok players in action (Wikimedia Commons)
Featured image: Small detail of a reproduction of a mural at the Tepantitla complex of Teotihuacan depicting a ball player (Wikimedia Commons)
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