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Representation of ancient Mesoamerican ballgame court in Mexico.  Source: smoke666 / Adobe stock

Ancient Ball Courts Found in Mexico Rewrite Deadly Ballgame’s History

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In Mexico, two ancient ball courts have been found in a remote highland area. This is forcing experts to rethink how an important ballgame and cultural practice emerged in ancient Mexico. The discoveries are also demonstrating the importance of highland areas, in the evolution of Mesoamerican culture.

In 2015 a group of archaeologists from the George Washington University in Washington D.C were investigating a site known as Etlatongo, in the mountains of Oaxaca, southern Mexico. They were examining an open raised area and believed they were excavating a prehistoric public building or space. However, by 2017, to their astonishment, they had found ancient ball courts.

Location of Etlatongo in Mesoamerica and the setting of its ballcourt. (Science Advances)

Location of Etlatongo in Mesoamerica and the setting of its ballcourt. ( Science Advances )

Oldest Ball Court Found in the Highlands

The archaeologists had found two stone ball courts, the earliest one, dates to about 1374 BC. This was based on the radiocarbon dating of burnt wood found at the site. This means that it is the oldest one ever found in the Mexican highlands, by some 800 years. According to Science News , “the oldest known ball court dates to about 3,650 years ago at a non- Olmec coast site at Paso de la Amada.”

Both ball courts were made of stone and were walled-in areas roughly about 18 ft wide (6m). Earthen mounds were used to buttress the structures. The courts were quite similar to ball alleys. Most spectators would view the game from the mounds. These courts were regularly maintained and rebuilt, and they were in use for around 175 years. 

Excavations at Etlatongo in southern Mexico probed beneath surface remains of a Spanish hacienda’s threshing floor (shown) to reveal two ancient ball courts, built atop each other. (Formative Etlatongo Project)

Excavations at Etlatongo in southern Mexico probed beneath surface remains of a Spanish hacienda’s threshing floor (shown) to reveal two ancient ball courts, built atop each other. ( Formative Etlatongo Project )

Burning a Ball Court

Jeffrey Blomster an archaeologist from George Washington University, who took part in the excavation told Gizmodo that there were some architectural changes observable between the two sites, “the older court having banquettes [like a long bench] and the younger court eliminating the banquettes and instead having steeper walls adjacent to the alley.”

Close up of ballcourts’ architectural differences. (A) While Str. 1-2 has a banquette, Str. 1-3 has a major step or terrace instead that covers the earlier banquette, with a second step visible further to the west, all of which was covered by the termination event. The alley shown is from Str. 1-2 (looking west). (B) Detail of Str. 1-2’s architecture, showing alley, banquette, and eastern mound (looking east). (J. Blomster / George Washington University)

Close up of ballcourts’ architectural differences. (A) While Str. 1-2 has a banquette, Str. 1-3 has a major step or terrace instead that covers the earlier banquette, with a second step visible further to the west, all of which was covered by the termination event. The alley shown is from Str. 1-2 (looking west). (B) Detail of Str. 1-2’s architecture, showing alley, banquette, and eastern mound (looking east). (J. Blomster / George Washington University )

These probably reflect changes in the game over a period of time. Some of the courts have not been investigated because of their state. Blomster told Gizmodo that “we tried to be very careful and not expose more of the ballcourts than we needed to, as they are so fragile and delicate.”

Science News reports that the study found that “the second ball court was burnt and taken out of use.” This happened about 1200 BC according to radio-carbon dating and was done most likely by the local inhabitants as part of a ceremony. Why this was done is a mystery, but it seems that there were no ball courts at this site after this date.

More Than a Game

An archaeologist, David Carballo, from Boston University stated to Science News that the discovery shows “that some of the earliest villages and towns in the highlands in Mexico were playing a ballgame comparable to the most prestigious version of the sport known as ullamalitzli.”

This was a game that was played by the Aztecs and it was very popular with them, and during their competitions, they would often hold human sacrifices. Similar ballgames were also played by the Maya and other Mesoamerican societies.  The games often symbolized “the regeneration of life and the maintenance of the cosmic order,” according to Gizmodo. They were also important as religious, social and political gatherings.

The Deadly Mesoamerican Ballgame

Some 2,300 ball courts have been found across Mexico and Central America . The game involved a solid rubber ball and the aim of the game was to keep it in constant motions, like volleyball. The players used only their hips and bodies to keep the ball in play, which they did by hitting it off the walls. These games could be brutal and there are sources that state that the losers were often sacrificed to the gods.

Depiction of players hitting a rubber ball with their hips in a version of Mesoamerica’s famous ballgame. (Christoph Weiditz / Public domain)

Depiction of players hitting a rubber ball with their hips in a version of Mesoamerica’s famous ballgame. (Christoph Weiditz / Public domain )

Apart from the structures of the ball courts the team also found several artifacts and bones, both human and non-human. They also unearthed 14 fragments of figurines of ballplayers. They were wearing Olmec style clothing such as “thick belts above a loincloth and sometimes a chest plate,” reports Science News .  The Olmecs were a very influential society and it appears that they influenced the development of the game and had cultural contacts with the Mexican highlands.

Partial ballgame player figurines such as this (shown from the front and side) were unearthed at a mountain site in southern Mexico. (J. Blomster / George Washington University)

Partial ballgame player figurines such as this (shown from the front and side) were unearthed at a mountain site in southern Mexico. (J. Blomster / George Washington University )

World’s Oldest Sport

Because the rubber used to make the balls came from the coastal areas, such as those controlled by the Olmecs it was long assumed that the game originated in the southern lowlands. However, the finds of the two ball courts are changing this view. Gizmodo quotes the team members who made the discovery as saying that their find is evidence that the Mexican highlands were “important players in the Mexican ballgames origin and evolution.”

The find also shows that the highlands of Mexico were important in the development and spread of Mesoamerican culture. A variant of the ballgame that was played in the ball alleys is still played in Mexico to this day. Thus, making it possibly the world’s oldest sport.

Top image: Representation of ancient Mesoamerican ballgame court in Mexico.  Source: smoke666 / Adobe stock

By Ed Whelan

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