As we were talking about the rise and fall of the Mayans in Mesoamerica, one thing that first jumped to my mind was the ball game. Many of the pictures then shown of the Mayan cities included these ballcourts. Perhaps one of the first exposures any of us had to this ancient game was while watching “The Road to El Dorado” (the animated movie that was released in 2000). So I wanted to research this game further, to see just how much is known about this ancient game.
A few sculptures of ballcourts have been discovered, providing invaluable information about the structure of the game and the spectators. The court has high walls on the sides, which have spectators on the top. Those citizens watching the game are depicted as male and female, adults and children. Figures have their arms around one another, and you can actually see family groups sitting together watching the game. The spectators all seem to be enjoying the game. On each side of the court there is one figure on the end of the spectators who appears to be playing a drum. As for the players and the field, the sculpture shows three players on the field for each of the two teams. There is a single figure in the middle of the court that is not a player and could be a referee of sorts. Also, there is no ball in this model, but there are round markers on the court (most likely divided it into sections). There is no evidence from this model that human sacrifice was involved, but other areas played slightly different versions of the game that did involve that grisly end.
The Mayans used rubber to make the balls for the game. They mixed liquid rubber (latex) from the rubber tree with juice from the Morning Glory vine; this added extra bounce and made it less sticky. Some of the balls had a human skull at the center, which made it hollow and lighter, while others were solid rubber and weighed up to eight or ten pounds. Different areas made different sized balls; they were anywhere from the size of a softball to the size of a beach ball. Only a few ancient balls still exist today. Players wore several key uniform items while they played. Like the ball and the rules, these items varied slightly from place to place. The key was to wear protective clothing that would not hinder the players’ speed and agility.
Not much is known about specific rules, but the general idea was to keep the rubber ball in play, most likely by hitting it with a player’s hip. It is known that the game was fast paced and dangerous; the heavy ball causing many injuries. The winners of the game were highly praised, which is probably the result of the game’s key place in the Mayan creation story. Human sacrifice (of the losing team) was not the result of every game, but carvings and paintings do indicate that it happened.
There is definitely a lot to learn about this first team sport, a lot known and unknown. It certainly gives a new meaning to the phrase “give it your all”. I guess sometimes winning is everything.