Different versions of a ball game were played in Mesoamerica from very early times. The oldest ball court yet discovered was built around 1400 BC at Paso de la Amada along the Pacific Ocean. The earliest known rubber balls are even older and were found at an Olmec sacrificial bog. The Olmec are therefore a strong candidate for inventing the Mesoamerica ball game. The game continued to be popular among Pre-Colombian civilizations for some 3000 years and was still played by the Aztecs when the Spanish arrived. Since the rubber tree was not found in the highlands of the Aztec Empire, every six months 16,000 lumps of raw rubber were imported from the Gulf lowland, most of it for making rubber balls. The Aztecs referred to the people in this lowland region as the Olmeca, meaning “rubber people”. The name has since been applied to the ancient Olmec civilization because their abandoned ruins were found in the same region.
The ballgame was played within a large stone structure consisting of a long narrow playing field flanked by two walls. Over 1300 ball courts of varying sizes have been found in Mesoamerica, all with this same shape. The rules of the ballgame, regardless of the version, are not precisely known. Spanish records state that the game was played by two teams of two to four players. The ball had to be kept in the air by hitting it with the hips, thighs or upper arms and bouncing it of the side walls. Use of the hands or feet was forbidden. The solid rubber ball was extremely hard and serious injuries were commonplace. Spanish chronicler Diego Durán stated that some bruises were so severe that they had to be sliced open. He also noted that players were even killed when the ball hit them in the face or stomach.
In the Postclassical period, the Maya began placing vertical stone rings in the center of each of the side walls, an innovation that continued into the later Toltec and Aztec cultures. Any player who succeeded in passing the ball through the stone ring was immediately declared the winner. As the holes in the ring were not much bigger than the ball this must have been a very rare event and most games were likely won on points. In the sixteenth-century Aztec version, points were gained if the ball hit the opposite end wall. Points were lost if the ball touched the ground or bounced more than twice before it was returned to the other team.
The Aztec game drew passionate support from huge crowds, often accompanied by large-scale betting. People lost their food, clothes, and even sold their children and themselves into slavery on the outcome of the game. The Spanish eventually banned it, not simply because of the large crowds it attracted but because it was more than just a game. For the ball court was a place of sacrifice, an arena where the head of the losers would be impaled on a skull rack besides the court and their blood was offered as food for the gods.
The Maya version of the ball game, named Pitz, was probably somewhat different from the Aztec one. Maya sculptures of the ball game suggest that the ball may have been much larger ranging in size from that of a softball to a soccer ball. Another notable difference is that the walls of Mayan ball courts had sloping sides which made the ball perhaps more easily bounce and kept into play. The Mayan ball courts were also initially much smaller than in later times. At 545 by 223 feet (166 x 68 m) the Great Ball Court at Chichen Itza is the largest ball court in Mesoamerica while the much older Ceremonial Court at Tikal is only 52 by 16 feet (16 m x 5 m).
Mayan Ball Game. Photo by Adam & Tess
It was once thought that, compared to the violent Aztec version, the Maya played a more gentle and elegant game of skill. But from the many depictions that have survived and from what is revealed in Maya writings it is now evident that the Mayan ball game could be just as deadly as it was among the Aztec. In ritual games, the leader of the losing team would be sacrificed, and his skull would then be used as the core around which a new rubber ball would be made.
In the religious life of the Maya the ball court was of central importance, a stage between the everyday world and the supernatural. On a basic level, the very act of preventing the ball from hitting the ground may have represented maintaining the orbit of the Sun or Venus. But the Mayan ball game was at its most significant when a Mayan lord sponsored a game or even participated himself. At these occasions the Mayan origin myths would be re-enacted, defeating the lords of the underworld and preserve human life. In these ritual games war victors would typically play against war captives in a predetermined match. The climax of such rituals was the sacrifice of a captured nobleman, ideally a ruler, whose blood was believed to be especially powerful.