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Former civilizations relied on entertainment such as games and sports which played a vital role in their cultures. For some, it provides an escape while for others it can be a profession. Sports can even go as far as having a political and economic influence on society. For ancient Mesoamerican civilizations, this was no different as sports and the Mesoamerican Ball Game played an essential role in the communities of the Olmecs, Mayans, Aztecs, and possibly many more. 

The Origins

The exact age of the Ball Game is unknown, but the oldest game court has been dated to around 1400 BC linking the game to the Olmecs, but the game could be much older. The game would transcend the Olmecs as Mayan and Aztec societies would participate in the game as well thousands of years later. It is also speculated that any community with access to rubber trees would likely have played the game as well as they could produce the game ball. Although there is no official name for the Ball Game, the Mayans would refer to it as pitz and the Aztecs as ōllamalīztli. 

The Rules

The rules vary among the different groups and time periods, but there are still some general rules. The game would be played on a court with some of these courts being placed in a vital spot within the city. On both sides of the court, there were walls that could vary in height and were sometimes sloped as well as sometimes featuring a hoop. An endzone would as be featured similar to that of modern Football. There would be two teams that could consist of two or more players per team and would be placed on opposite sides of the court. The objective would be to score points using a rubber ball. Teams would return the ball to each other using their hips as hands and feet were not allowed to hit the ball. Points would then be scored if the ball went through the hoop, went into the other team’s endzone, or failed to return the ball to the other side. 

Cultural and Political Impact 

It is clear that the Ball Game played a similar or even bigger role in sports. Many of the courts allowed spectators to watch and even bet on games. This would make the players celebrities within society as they gained fame and fortune just like modern athletes. 

The game would even go on to impact the layout of kingdoms. Some rulers would substitute the Ball Game for battles. The ruler with the winning team would gain the land or resources of the loser’s territory. 

Religious and symbolic qualities were attributed to the game as well. Many courts would be decorated with religious pieces as well as vice versa with religious pieces depicting the Ball Game. It is also speculated that for some cultures, each end zone of the court represents the heavens and underworld while the ball represents the sun. For others, it represents astronomy and war. 

Sacrifice would also go on to be intertwined with the Ball Game although this would come later with the Mayans and Aztecs. Hieroglyphics depict sacrificed players, although it is speculated that this would be rare and only happen for special occasions or holidays. The players participating would also be captives and forced to play; some even suggest the game would be rigged for one side. 

While most of the Olmecs, Mayans, and Aztec’s culture has been destroyed or lost to time, the Ball Game is something that has endured. The Ball Game has helped researchers to understand some critical aspects of Mesoamerica society, giving insights into the life of a person who lived hundreds, even thousands of years ago. The game still lives on to this day as a variation of it is played in parts of Central America. This game is called Ulama and the player’s gear is traditional indigenous clothing. 

Hopefully, more discoveries are made to give us a better understanding of the Ball Game and Mesoamerican culture in general. There is a rich history behind all of these civilizations that are just waiting to be uncovered.

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Sam Higa