Mesoamerican Ball Games: More Than Just a Game

Mayan Art | Courtesy of Mary Ellen Miller

El juego de pelota, dating back to 1500 BCE, is known as the oldest ball game ever created in human history. It was played across many Mesoamerican civilizations and recognized as one of the most solemn events of that time. The game held religious, social, political, and ritualistic significance unlike any other. This sport was more than just a game, but quite frankly, it was an event that often resulted in life or death.

The origins of this game are not precisely known, but many historians believe its first appearance to have derived from the Olmec society, the first major civilization in Mesoamerica.1 The Olmecs, who inhabited the gulf coast of Veracruz, were recognized for their development of latex in the pre-classical era. In fact, many game balls consisting of latex have been recovered from the region and have led historians to believe this evidence to be the origins of this great, ancient game. As millennia have gone by, several different Mesoamerican civilizations have adopted this sport and created their own unique styles of play. However, the general idea of the game was never changed.

The ball game consisted of two teams, ranging between two to four players. The players would wear protective garments and sometimes dress up in representations of an animal. Depending on the situation and culture, players would compete on uniquely structured ball courts. On game-day all members of the society would gather around with excitement for the big match up. Unfortunately, this was no light matter, and nothing close to our typical spectator-sports.2

There has been approximately thirteen-hundred courts discovered, from the state of Arizona to the southern most parts of Paraguay. These courts were comprised of a large, flat field with two walls on each side. Typically, these walls would be slanted. However, with many different cultures, these ball courts were not all the same across the geographic regions. However, they all had one thing in common: a ring mounted on the wall (whether it was flat or slanted). This large stone ring (on both sides), standing high and tall on the wall, would be the area where the players would aim to score. The goal of the team was to hit the rubber ball, without using their hands, into the mounted ring. In order to hit the ball, they would propel their bodies and fling their hips. This difficult motion made the game a challenge, and it was only capable of being played by a select few of each society.3

https://montrealradioguy.files.wordpress.com/2008/04/great-ball-court-pan.jpg
The Great Chichen Itza Ball Court (located in Cancun) with Tourists | Courtesy of David Tyler

Unlike any other game, it was made up of tactical movements rarely seen in today’s professional sports. Players risked severe injuries by throwing there bodies across the stone court. In addition, the impact of the rubber ball could cause horrible bruising, often leading to internal bleeding, and possibly even death. If the game did not kill the player, the outcome certainly could. Due to the game’s religious nature, players who lost the match would often be sacrificed to the gods and killed in a ceremonial event.4

This game was a big influence across societies in Mesoamerica. It was not only a sport, but a highly regarded event. The Mayans considered it an opening to the underworld and intertwined the sport with mythological significance. The cost of losing would conclude in a sacrificial act; in this way, members of the society were able to keep their gods happy and ultimately balanced. As time went by, when the Aztecs adopted the game, it was seen as a problem solver. Players would compete on the stone courts, fighting for hierarchy and dominance. This formal competition would also lead to solving political conflicts. It was a great act of gamble, and certainly one with great significance.5

No matter the society, this game left a most distinctive resonance. It endured through many civilizations as the centuries went by, and created a sport with rich meaning. Whether through the symbolism of mythological gods or simply for the sake of competition, this ball game left details and stories of the once great civilizations of Mesoamerica. Although today’s evidence is limited, the message given across these magnificent stone courts is clearly shown.

 

 

 

  1. Jeffrey P. Blomster, “Early Evidence of the Ballgame in Oaxaca, Mexico,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 109, no. 21 (2012): 8020–25.
  2. Salem Press Encyclopedia, January 2015, s.v. “Mesoamerican Ball Game,” by David A. Crain.
  3. Colleen P. Popson, “Extreme Sport,” Archaeology 56, no. 4 (October 9, 2003): 42–48.
  4. Zaccagnini Jessica, “Maya Ritual and Myth: Human Sacrifice in the Context of the Ballgame and the Relationship to the Popol Vuh” (Honors Thesis, Southern Illinois University Carbondale, 2003), 2-11.
  5. World History Encyclopedia, 2011, s.v. “Mesoamerican Ball Courts – Fusing Game and Religion,” by Alfred J. Andrea and Carolyn Neel.
Mesoamerican Ball Games: More Than Just a Game
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39 Comments

  • This past summer I was fortunate enough to go on a cruse with my family, One of the stopes we made while on the cruse was to Cancun where we were able to go and see the ball courts, at Chichen Itza. It was an amazing experience that I will never for get and after reading this article I feel like I have a better understanding for the sport.

  • In history, we have talked about all the civilizations around the world. How they went from hunters to gatherers throughout the years. I really enjoyed reading this article because it took us to the “fun” part of Mesoamerican Civilizations. Today we have many different famous sports, but none end in a life or death situation. It is incredible the amount of significance the game meant to these people; it was an “opening to the underworld” and the loser of the game would have to be a part of a sacrificial act. Great article!

  • This is a very good topic; actually this is a topic I wanted to talk about. I like that your article gives a general idea of it all in a very clear manner. But there is something you said in the article that caught my attention. When you talked about religious purposes, you mentioned that the losing party had to be sacrifice. If I don’t recall wrong, the winning team was the one being sacrificed since they were the ones worth sacrificing to the Gods. Which was a great honor for the team.

  • To be completely honest, I had never heard of this game before, and I think its insane the game is played. To use only your hips to make the ball into the ring sounds nearly impossible, and it makes me wonder how long these games usually lasted or if they instituted a rule where if they ran out of time they would settle it another way. Overall, this was a very interesting article and I’m glad that I know now were sports could have come from.

  • Honestly, I had never heard about this game. I really liked the way how you have provided detailed information. It’s really amazing that the competitors are successfully able to score only using their hips. Also, players competing on the stone courts, fighting for hierarchy and dominance is something I had never heard of and that’s really amazing. The fact that it was even seen as a way to settle political disputes is just mind-boggling to me. To sum it up, I really liked this article.

  • I remember hearing of this game once before, but had no idea people were sacrificed for a loss, nor did I know they had to use their hips to make the ball into the ring. Not sure how anyone would win quite frankly, this game sounds impossible. How does country the angle of attack in any realistic way. Besides the fact people are scarified for losing, this was fun learning experience and good article.

  • It’s interesting the way Mesoamerican civilizations take the risk of playing the game knowing the consequences. It’s crazy how they could play knowing that at the end one will be sacrifice! By other part is admirable the strength and ability these players had, it should have been tough! I also admire how serious they take their religious affiliations.

  • Great article! It was informative and a fun read. I am glad we don’t play games like this anymore! I would love to see the ball courts. I like to watch sports, so it would be interesting to see a reenactment of the game (without the sacrifice). They must have trained hard and been very athletic to jump that high to be able to get their hip to hit the ball in the circle. I can’t imagine trying to do that myself. Overall, great article!

  • This game must have been so crazy to watch! I wonder if these people knew that when they would propel their bodies to the rubber ball that they were hurting themselves internally. Thinking about it, this sport kind of reminds me of soccer. They couldn’t touch the ball with their hands but had to aim it in the goal. I wonder if different forms of this were passed down and this is where the idea came from. Overall, I thought this was a great article!

  • After reading this article, I can see why people in today’s world would never fully replicate El juego de pelota. To us, it must seem insane for someone to play this game knowing the possibility that they may get sacrificed. To the Mayans, they probably saw the game as a win-win situation. Either you won the game, or you kept the gods happy through your sacrifice. Wonderful article, great job!

  • Hey Erik,the moment I saw the image you have used here I was surprised at how it looked so much like the indians were playing base ball. I am suprised to learn that the Veracruz had developed latex by the pre-classical era. The number of playing courts was a very impressive thing to know off. This game it seems was a unting glue for the many people of Mesoamerica given the detail and investment they did into it.

  • The idea that losing a simple game could result in your death (not to mention one could still die from injuries sustained if you won) is crazy. The fact that it was even seen as a way to settle political disputes is just mind-boggling to me, but then again, people in the future might think we were crazy for paying millions of dollars a year to watch people fight until one is rendered unconscious.

  • Crazy to think this is where sports all started, now they continue to have incredible impacts on people lives every day. Now we use a ball for a majority of our sports, I guess its safe to say we can thank the Mesoamericans for all the great sports we have today. Because without the idea to start games with a ball they would have never been invented. Great article, really enjoyed the read because I felt like the topic was supported very well.

  • It is crazy to understand someone going onto the field to play a game knowing that they might die. I feel that this sport was a crazy game and entertaining during that time but in my opinion, it is not worth one’s life just to play a game. The injuries mentioned would make me afraid to play in the first place, let alone being sacrificed is much worse to know. If someone loses a game today, they might feel sad or upset or their coach might make them work harder at practice. However, times have changed and this article was very interesting since there still are fields found today. Great article!

  • Ok this was a good article! I dont know anyone in this generation who would be crazy enough to play that game. Im definitely not gonna play a game that i could die in every time i play so its crazy to hear that people back then knew the consequences and still went out and played. This was a very informative article, i loved it!

  • Amazing Article. I never knew such sport ever existed but astonishing. The risk of playing was tremendous. It was either win or die trying takes whole meaning of giving it your all. How the game was interesting I did not know that such movements of the hips were done in order to just play the game. People think football is dangerous wait until they hear about this game. Makes football seem like childs play.

  • What an interesting read!! That is so crazy!! All these people were so crazy! I find it so fascinating reading about their customs, they are so different form ours now that that is what makes it so interesting to know about them! Even though I had heard that in the MesoAmerica culture a lot of sacrificing took place, I hadn’t heard of this juego de pelota! What an interesting and scary game because either way both opponents would end up either dead or severely hurt, so was the point of the game really to sacrifice everyone that played it because it was sure that, thats what they were doing!! Crazy to know that you had to be chosen to play it, as if it was a privilege which back then it was but to us now it sure isn’t!

  • I wonder if the players who lost at “el juego de la pelota” were terrified because they were going to be killed or if they were proud to die for their gods. I also wonder if young men volunteered to be in these sports or if they were forced to play. You chose a very interesting topic and your article is well written. It’s very interesting to read about the ways in which early civilizations invented games for entertainment. Great job!

  • Interesting article. Reading about premodern sports (like jousting) is always interesting to me, especially when you hear how much culture is often infused into it (not unlike the culture we infuse into modern sports today). As far as the actual article goes, you had a few awkward points in your language usage (and that’s really a very minor criticism), but overall it was a very solid, well-executed piece. Great work.

  • What an amazing read. I have often made the joke watching sports on tv that the athletes play like their lives depend on it, but the for Mesoamericans their lives actually did depend on it. Its very interesting reading about such a brutal and intense religions practice. I do wonder if this sport could have had any influences on the modern sports we play today

  • Great article! El juego de la pelota is a game that i had never before heard about. its interesting to learn about all of the different ways they came up to keep themselves entertained. i feel that the rim on the wall can be compared to the sport of Basketball. Another sport that i can relate this to is soccer because the players were not allowed to use their hands. Sports like these can be the beginning for the sports that we see today and its very interesting to know how they begin.

  • Talk about not knowing how to take a loss. I am from Arizona but I did not know that there were playing fields were discovered there, so that is great information to know. This article was super interesting although I would have loved a bit more information on what was considered as Mesoamerica (I should probably know but I do not).

  • The last time I read on this was my sophomore year in high school, so I’m glad to see that it is still a topic to pitch out an entire article on. This article served as a refresher, some information was already known knowledge however, I did not know the Mayans kept it as a symbol to mythological gods. The beginning of the article was a bit dull and I lost interest because I expected something more gruesome or significant given from my past reads on the subject. However, you finished off strong and well put the sequence of its content.

  • I have only heard about these types of games once, but never realized the consequence of a loss being death. It truly changes the whole perspective of this sport and the civilizations of that time. It provides an in-depth look as to how the people of these areas viewed human life and how they revered their gods. Another thought comes to mind, this being the great skill and athletic ability the competitors had whilst playing the games. The picture allows one to view the height at which the rings were set and the texture of the field that was used. It seems painful, exhausting, and gruesome. A great read!

  • I knew that this game was of Mayan origin but I did not know that the Aztecs adopted the game to solve conflicts. I wonder how many people decided to lose their argument rather than risk losing their lives.

  • I like it when I hear about diverse culture. It reminds me of the different places i grew up in the world and how people were expressed and expressed themselves in a different manner than i did myself, as well as my family. I think you did a great job explaining the topic and describing the cultural background of it all. But the game itself was crazy, who in the right mind would do that. Death is not an option im down with

  • Good article. I also did an article on this subject but was unaware that they had discovered thirteen hundred courts with one as close as the state of Arizona. I was amazed how a ball game was used from a paying homage to gods to simply entertainment and that the players would most often lose their lives for losing.

  • I remember seeing this game in the kids cartoon movie El Dorado. I usually feel bad for the losers of any game or sport, but the losers of this game get my deepest sympathy. Great article, good job and keep it up.

  • Very interesting article and informational. Its interesting to hear about the practices and rituals followed by different cultures, they are so different from many that we practice here. There is so much history that we do not know about and getting to read articles like this makes you appreciate the past and the ways it has shaped our future. Great job!

  • Very interesting article about el juego de pelota! You did a wonderful job of getting the reader’s attention by stating the significances of the game in your opening..made me want to keep reading! Also, I never would’ve guessed that one of the fields would be in Arizona. Great information & an interesting read. Well done!

  • It is always interesting to learn about how entertainment and activities we have in today’s society has come about and evolved over time. It is quite surprising to learn how serious the game was to the people of this time and area. Imagine losing the game then having to lose your life. Crazy! Thank you for sharing this interesting topic! Well done!

  • Excellent article, el juego de pelota has been around for thousands of years not only throughout North, Central, and South America but also in the Caribbean even though the game was a little bit different.

  • Great article Erik! Undoubtedly, this game was of great significance in ancient Mesoamerican civilizations. When learning about Mesoamerica and its different cultures, I learned about this game that, though it was entertaining, it also involved the sacrifice of those who lose. I did not know that the Olmecs were considered the ones who created this game, or that the Maya saw it as a portal to the underworld. Very informative and well written.

  • It was interesting and surprising to read about el juego de pelota. It’s hard to imagine the competitiveness, pressure, and pain that these players would go through. It’s interesting to find out that they not only did it to please their gods, but to also help settle political conflicts! Very informative, keep it up!

  • It was extremely interesting to learn about “El Juego de pelota”. Especially in regards to its significance. How it’s not just a game to be played for entertainment. It’s a game played in order to pay homage to their gods. As well as being a game that could settle political disputes. Even though it had many benefits the consequences of losing is death. Which is rather extreme. Incredibly informative and well-written. Keep up the good work!

  • Great Article Erik, it still amazes me how the competitors were able to successfully score with the use of only their hips. Its surprising to know that they constructed a mass amount of courts in the motivation to keep their tradition striving, and keep their gods happy. Awesome job and keep up the great work!

  • That was crazy. I never heard these types of games in MesoAmerican cultures. I was aghast to learn these while reading articles. You did a good job for giving that brutal sense of the game. They either got seriously injured or died because they lost. Very interesting culture and good job

  • It’s very cool being able to read about this topic in detail. I had the privilege of visiting Chichen Itza and the ball court this past summer and our tour guide told us the stories of this brutal game. It was shocking to say the least. The stakes are so high (literally life or death) and I can’t imagine the pressure. I didn’t know they consider it a way of opening to the underworld. Very interesting. Well done!

  • Interesting article here on el juego de pelota. I didn’t know that there was a field in Arizona. Next time I am going through Phoenix, I’ll have to take a detour.

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