Well before James Naismith invented the game of basketball in 1891, the peoples of Mesoamerica had a very similar game where the point was to get a ball though a hoop. The games origins date back as far as one-thousand years before the common era. The game has gotten many names over the years such as; juego de pelota in Spanish; pitz in classical Mayan; and ullamaliztli in Nahuatl. Each area had a variation of the game with different rules and customs but generally the game was the same. The game, which combined aspects of modern basketball, soccer and modern American football, was popular in both secular and religious life before the Spanish invasion of the area starting in 1520.|
The more urbanized, or ritualized, version is not to dissimilar from basketball because it does have the stone rings for players and in some versions of the game a player may not take more than three steps before passing the ball to a teammate. The most common versions of the game, played in mostly southern Mexico and Guatemala, had players wearing a leather or wooden yoke type belt around their hips so that they could hit the ball with their hips. Even though there were a lot of variations to the game, all the games all had one thing in common; they all played for blood. This was not the ďno blood, no foulĒ street rules of basketball either, this was loser died.
The game is played with a rubber ball called an ulama and depending on the region can either be played like soccer were a ball must go into a ground goal or like basketball were the ball must go through a stone ďhoopĒ mounted above the playing court. Like the game itself, the courts vary in size and structure as well; from the very small courts found through-out small Mexican villages to the huge courts found at places such as Chichen-Itza. The size and scale of the game and court had an impact on exactly what type of game was going to be played. Much like in modern sports in areas were equipment is rare, the players had to make do with any substitutes they could find. This appears to be exactly the case with the Mesoamerican ballgame, and is a likely reason as to the variations of the game. In the more rural areas the game is played much lower to the ground and the ball is kicked or struck with the lower body more. In the more urban areas where materials and equipment is readily available the game is played higher up on the body, and decorative protective masks are sometimes worn.|
Not everyone who played the game was sacrificed though. There is some evidence that the game was for recreation and exercise. Some of the best evidence for this comes from smaller rubber balls, and smaller padding equipment which is thought to have been made for children. Unlike games elsewhere at the time, women were permitted to play the game. It is, however, unknown if these women were active participants or just slaves forced to play before being butchered. Playing the game did have itís advantages. Winners were sometimes rewarded with honors, jewels, and in some cases the clothing of those watching the game. Stone stelaes show ball players wearing their yokes reaching up to the Moon and Sun gods, suggesting that this game also had a lot of religious significance in society. So by being victorious in the ball game, could be seen by some as being favored by the gods.
While not every who played the game was executed, the religiousness behind the game often meant that there would be blood letting at some point. The most likely forms of blood letting was to simply puncture the ears, tongues, or penisís of players and let the blood just spill out onto the court. There is a lot of evidence that as the game progressed over the centuries it became a lot more violent. The evolution of the Mesoamerican ballgame could be seen a lot like the evolution of the arena games in Roman antiquity. Where at first the games are small and relatively bloodless, but as time and the popularity of the sport continued the games became increasingly larger and more violent.
There isnít a lot of evidence that suggest that a ball court in a small Mayan or Aztec village was the scene of wholesale slaughter, and it likely is not that case anyway. The smaller courts were likely mostly for recreational uses. But the larger and more elaborate courts definitely were meant to be a bloody spectacle, not unlike the Coliseum in Rome. Chichen-Itza, the home of the largest ball court, was also a religious center for the Mayan people. There is also evidence that the ballgame was played during religious festivals and holidays in Chichen-Itza, and following these games many of the players were sacrificially executed. There is some debate as to whether or not it was the whole losing team that was executed, the losing captain, or even possibly the victorious team that was executed.
Because of the variations of the game through-out Mesoamerica it is hard to pinpoint exactly what modern sport the game is most like. The game has aspects of soccer, basketball, American rules football, and even rugby. Some of the best examples of how the games were originally played come from Aztec artwork. One of the more famous Aztec artworks which depict the game is the Codex Magliabechi which depicts two warriors playing the game, inside a ball court, dressed in only loincloths and human skulls on the ground.# The Codex Magliabechi does show two circular objects on the sides of the court which could be interpreted as the ďhoopĒ goal making the game more like basketball.
An original set of rules for the game has yet to be found, but accounts from Spanish missionaries claim that teams scored points by getting the ball to their opponents end of the field and then through the hoop or into the goal. The game was scored much like soccer in this aspect with each goal being worth one point. However, a strictly Mesoamerican aspect of this game was that a team could lose all of its points if the score tied. Lets say for example a team from Texcoco is leading the team from Tula 3-0, but the team from Tula scores 3 straight points; than the team from Texcoco would lose all of their points and Tula would lead 3-0. This type of scoring had to make the game go on nearly indefinitely, as teams would constantly be gaining and losing points. The games however, only went to 8 points so the first team to score 8 points won the game and lived another day. |
The dress or uniforms for the game have caused some debate. Some sources, such as The Codex Magliabechi, show players in only loin cloths, but other sources, such as The Codex Borgia, show players in full regalia and with elaborate ceremonial costumes. The Codex Borgia is important for the understanding of the game because it shows the game in itís latest stages before the Spanish invasion. The discrepancies between The Codex Borgia and The Codex Magliabechi in how the players dressed is likely explained by the time in which each codex was constructed. The Codex Borgia was created in pre-Columbian times, but The Codex Magliabechi was created in post Columbian times, and since the grand regalia of the game had religious significance and any Pagan religious type activities were banned by the Spanish Christians, than the players would have had to play the game without their ceremonial outfits following the Spanish Conquest.
The ball used was made out of rubber, but the exact amount of rubber is debatable. The techniques to make a ball varied from the ingenious to the barbaric. One of the more ingenious ways the Aztecs found to inflate balls, and thus making them softer, was to take bladders of both humans and animals and fill them with air than put the bladders inside the rubber to make the ball. Other ball designs had the ball completely being made out of rubber, but that was hard to accomplish it would also make the ball harder so it is assumed this type of ball was not very common. Wrapping rubber around another object, such as wood, rocks, and human skulls, was the most common method of creating the ball. The Spanish noted on their conquests that in some of the poorer villages a skull or severed human head would sometimes be used in place of a ball.
The most widespread of the versions of the game when the Spanish arrived was the version were the players hit the ball with their hip, much like a soccer player would, and the players ultimate goal was to keep the ball in play. The hoops and goals have only been found at the larger and more elaborate ball courts which suggest that they were a later addition to the game. The version were a player hitís the ball with his hip is still the most common version of the game played today.
The origins of the game date back to at least 1000 BCE, but there is evidence that the game may have its roots in the early days of the Olmec Civilization. The only evidence that survives of the Olmec having played this game is a few pieces of artwork and a few statures. The Olmec version of the game was likely more like soccer and a lot more crude than the later versions of the Aztecs and Mayans. Symbols of corn have been found on many of these artworks, and since corn symbolized fertility in the Mesoamerican cultures it is believed that these early games were played to ensure a bountiful harvest. What is unknown is if this version of the game was a blood sport or not. Little is known about the game between the fall of the Olmec and the rise of the early Mayan, what is known is that by the classical times of the Mayan the game had reached itís zenith, and the game would continue to be popular until the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in the 1520s.
Construction of a ball court was not a task for the weak-hearted. The ball courts were built of stone, with a pit for a playing field, and places for spectators to sit and view the game. The grand I-shaped ball court at Chichen-Itza measures 272 feet long, 100 feet wide, and 27 feet high. That is more then double the size of a modern NBA basketball court, and just a little bit shy of the dimensions of a modern NFL Football field. These were indeed massive construction projects that would have taken years, maybe even decades to complete. When you consider that the native peoples of the Americas did not have the wheel it makes this accomplishment that much more awe inspiring.
The games had another modern aspect and that was gambling. This was a problem especially for the Mayan who would sometimes wager their own freedom on the outcome of a game.
I can only image how difficult it must have been to play this game and be worried about being knocked into a stone structure or to be hit by a completely rubber filled ball because, unlike our soccer ball their ball was not inflated to provide some cushion upon impact.
The game is still played today throughout much of central America, and with the increasing number of immigrants from that area into the United States the game has gotten some popularity in the United States as well. I was given the opportunity to play the game with some long time players in a local park, with nearly identical rules as those used by the Mesoamerican peoples with a few exceptions. We played in an open soccer field with distinct markings for out-of-bounds, and we didnít have the yokes because the game was played with an ordinary soccer ball. However, we did have two rings attached to long posts for goals. After just playing the game, with modern equipment, I can attest to the difficulty of this game. Not only was it nearly impossible to get the ball through the rings but the shear physicality of the game was astonishing. |
The game has stood the test of time because of itís adaptability, the lack of rules has really helped keep it alive in the sense that anyone with a ball can play the game. All it really takes to play the game is a couple of players, a ball, and an open space. Since all three of those things can be found in even the poorest of communities the game has been able to continue on.