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
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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  • It’s interesting that people in this early time period played ball games. When I think back that far, I imagine everyone either reading holy texts or working to provide for their villages. The game itself seems difficult – having to use parts of your body other than your hands is challenging in itself. And the fact that you could die from playing it just shows the intensity of this “game.” Great article, though! I never would have known that such an activity ever existed.

  • I really like this article because it shares the ‘fun’ part of the mesoamerican civilization. In the beginning this did remind me of soccer, and thought it was how soccer started but I wonder it is a different form that somehow transformed to something different. It is interesting knowing that these things do exist in past civilizations. Overall, great article!

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