Aztec Ball Court Discovered Beneath Mexico City Streets

It’s hard to overstate the importance of the Mesoamerican ball game to indigenous cultures across the Americas. It’s one of the oldest sports in the world, and the first we know of to have used a rubber ball—examples of these balls have been dated to 1600 B.C.E. The game changed a lot as it slowly migrated north over its long history, but some rules remained constant in pretty much every iteration. Like racquetball, the goal is to keep the ball in play, and points can be scored when the opposing team knocks it out of bounds. In most versions, players can only knock the ball around with their hips—hands and feet are off limits. Later versions added the great stone-walled courts, which were then further modified with vertical hoops that players could bounce the ball through in order to score bonus points.

But as you might have guessed by that pile of vertebrae, winning the game wasn’t just a matter of hometown pride. In the Mayan version of the game, opposing city-states might choose to settle their differences on the ballcourt instead of on the battlefield, and also used the game as a means of foretelling the future. By the time the Aztecs adopted it, the ritual decapitation of the losing team was as much a part of the game as the pop-up fly rule is in baseball—though probably not as controversial.

Believe it or not, the Mesoamerican ball game isn’t just one of the oldest known sports, it’s one of the oldest that’s been continuously played up to this day. Called ulama, the modern-day version of the game features substantially less decapitation than its predecessor. It survived in remote communities, and in recent years, a new generation of the descendents of Mesoamerican peoples have found a new fascination with the game. In 2017, hundreds of people from various Latin American countries visited the ancient city of Teotihuacán for the first international ulama tournament. If it’s true that ulama can be used to tell the future, then maybe the game is on the cusp of a new revival.

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