General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 20 Nov 2017/5 Eagle
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Ballgame illustration by Covarrubias

Oh balls!

The Aztecs called the game itself (the action of hitting the ball with the hips or buttocks) ‘ullamaliztli’ and the ballcourt ‘tlachtli’, but the Mesoamerican ballgame can be traced back some 3,500 years - the oldest recorded ball game in the world - to Mexico’s mother culture, the Olmec (‘the people of rubber’)... (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Picture 1: Ballcourt in the Codex Borgia (reconstruction)
Picture 1: Ballcourt in the Codex Borgia (reconstruction) (Click on image to enlarge)

All the great ancient Mexican civilisations played this ritual game. It’s probably the oldest known team sport played with a ball in the world.

Picture 2: ‘Scoring’ must have been very rare!
Picture 2: ‘Scoring’ must have been very rare! (Click on image to enlarge)

Most experts agree that the movement of the ball across the court represented, at least on one level, the movement of the sun in the the sky - it was vital to keep the ball moving throughout the game*. The Spanish conquerors had never seen a rubber ball before - imagine their utter amazement...! More than likely they thought it was a being ‘possessed’ by a strange spirit, or, in one word, magic.

Picture 3: Tribute evidence in the Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford)
Picture 3: Tribute evidence in the Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford) (Click on image to enlarge)

At the height of the Aztec empire, the annual tribute demand to Tenochtitlan in rubber balls totalled 16,000! They came - exclusively - from the lowland coastal province, far south-east from Tenochtitlan of Tochtepec - Olmec land. The province was rich in resources: gold, cotton, cacao, fish, birds, and... rubber!
In one of the most richly illustrated tribute pages of the famous Codex Mendoza we fnd recorded (Pic3) the glyphs for 2 x 8,000 (incense bags) = 16,000 rubber balls. This is a huge increase on the 2,000 balls demanded annually in tribute by the original conqueror of the region (Nezahualcoyotl of Texcoco) just a few decades earlier. According to one researcher (see The Ball by John Fox) it would have taken about 1,300 acres of land and over 400 full-time rubber tappers to meet that sort of level of annual rubber ball ‘tax’!

Picture 4: Ballgame reconstruction in Querétaro
Picture 4: Ballgame reconstruction in Querétaro (Click on image to enlarge)

Over 1,500 ballcourts have been discovered throughout Mesoamerica, the largest (at Chichén Itzá) some 6x bigger than the smallest (at Tikal, Guatemala).

Picture 5: Movement glyph, Codex Borgia
Picture 5: Movement glyph, Codex Borgia (Click on image to enlarge)

*Notice how the glyph for ‘movement’ in the Codex Borgia (Pic 5) looks strikingly like the two elements passing through the rings of the ballcourt shown in the Codex Zouche-Nuttall (Pic 6)!

Picture 6: Ballcourt, Codex Zouche-Nuttall
Picture 6: Ballcourt, Codex Zouche-Nuttall (Click on image to enlarge)

Incidentally, the Florentine Codex tells us that rubber was also highly regarded as a curative for a wide range of ailments.

For a really authoritative article about this athletic, dangerous, symbolic and ancient game (pity there are no pictures, though!), read ‘The Mesoamerican ballgame’ by Jane Stevenson Day, retired Chief Curator of the Denver Museum of Natural History (link below) -

- or visit the splendid website that supported an entire exhibition on the Mesoamerican ballgame (‘The Sport of Life and Death’) at the Mint Museum of Art, Charlotte, North Carolina, USA in 2001.

Ian explaining some of the principles of the ballgame to some keen participants!
Ian explaining some of the principles of the ballgame to some keen participants! (Click on image to enlarge)
‘The mother of all ballgames’

Mesoballgame.org
‘The Mesoamerican Ballgame’ (PDF)
A few more resources on the ballgame...
Study a rattle in the form of a ball player
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