The Mesoamerican ballgame was an ancient sport with ritual associations played by the pre-Columbian peoples of Ancient Mexico and Central America. It’s origins are thought to date from the 15th century B.C. and, in it’s ancient version, ended with the Spanish conquest in the 16th century A.D. Thus, it endured for some 2700 years.
Although some iterations permitted the use of forearms or rackets, in the most common version of the game the players kept the ball in play with their hips, buttocks, and knees. The ball was made of the rubberized latex sap of the lowland Castilla elastica tree, ranged from 10-12 inches in diameter, and typically weighed 3 to 6 lbs.
The game is thought to have been involved with geophysical activities including the movement of the sun, and rituals including the death and descent of the sun into the underworld, the recycling of crops, of vegetation, of seasons and of thus the regeneration of life itself. The ritual significance of the game is reflected in the expenditure of effort made in the building of ball courts, many in ceremonial precincts, and in the artwork devoted to the game.
In The Mesoamerican Ballgame (University of Arizona Press) contributors Linda Schele and David Freidel describe the ballgame as “a central focus of power and mystery to the pre-Columbian Lowland Maya. More than a game, it was a passionate play with intent to move the cycles of the natural and social worlds across the dangerous thresholds of oblivion”.
The ballgame was played within a large structure built of blocks of native limestone. In plan, the structure generally can be described as a long, narrow alleyway: this was thus the playing field upon which the game, itself a ritual, was enacted.
In early iterations this alleyway was apparently open-ended, without terminating walls. In later versions, the long axis was terminated with end-walls and side-courts, resulting in an “I”-shaped configuration in which the long axis of the playing field is terminated by two cross-axis spaces. In general all of the later ball courts apparently have this same “I”-shaped plan form.
In section, the playing alley was flanked by limestone block walls with both horizontal and sloping (or, more rarely, vertical) surfaces. Although the finishes are no longer extant these walls were originally lime plastered and apparently brightly painted, al fresco. Figures carved intaglio covered these walls, commemorating ritual victories and losses, and usually the ritual decapitation of the winning captain to fertilize the soil.
Ball courts were built by the Toltec, Olmec, Zapotec, Maya, and Aztec civilizations, and archeological sites have been found from northern Mexico to Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and northern Costa Rica. There are an estimated 1,300 known ballcourts in MesoAmerica, with a geographic extent of over a million square miles.