Image: Bobak Ha’Eri
Human sacrifice may seem a barbaric idea today, but for some Mesoamerican cultures, in what is now Mexico and Central America, it was part of their way of life. And while it may not have been all fun and games, a game was in fact closely linked with this most macabre of rituals – the earliest recorded ballgame in history. As early as 3,500 years ago, these Mesoamerican dudes were playing a ballgame that was kind of like the granddaddy of modern sports such as racquetball and volleyball. The games took place in long narrow playing alleys, flanked by walls at different angles that the balls bounced against.
Prototype basketball hoop: Maya ballcourt, Chichen Itza
Though the ballgame’s exact rules are unknown, the basic aim was to keep the ball in play using the hip, the forearm, a bat or a handstone, depending on the version being played. Later Mesoamerican cultures fixed stone hoops to the sides of the court, the object being to hurl the ball through it. The sport could be brutal, with serious injuries inflicted by balls weighing up to 10lbs/4kg – and that was if you survived at all.
It took balls: depiction of human sacrifice, Veracruz ballcourt, El Tajin
Image: Thomas Aleto
Stone reliefs on ballcourt walls show scenes of players being beheaded by opponents, or having their hearts cut out by priests as a religious offering. Human sacrifice occurred because the ballgame was deeply rooted in the Mesoamericans’ beliefs. It represented different natural cycles – for the Aztecs the struggle between day and night, for the Mayans between life and death – and sacrificing a hero like a ballplayer ensured fertility and rebirth. The ballgame was more than just a sporting contest; but those Mesoamericans sure knew how to stage an event.
Off with his head: decapitation scene, Chichen Itza
There are about 1,500 known ballcourts, from different eras, ranging from the size of a tennis court to larger than a football pitch. The Great Ballcourt at Chichen Itza is a whacking great 185m by 68m. These were the first sports arenas – ancient stadiums that allowed large numbers to enjoy their spectacle of choice. Enormous effort and resources must have been invested into building these great structures; but the real birth seed of the ballgame is somewhat smaller in scale.
A whole different ballpark: Chichen Itza
Image: Jan Zatko
The early Mesoamericans known as Olmecs – meaning rubber people – were the original inventors of bouncing balls. Several millennia before Charles Goodyear patented vulcanisation in 1839, these ancient Michelin Men had discovered a process for producing hard rubber. The latex of the native rubber tree was probably mixed with the juice of a morning glory vine, then heated in the sun, with the resulting rubber used to make shoes and clothes, as well as the balls themselves. Talk about getting the ball – as well as the heads – rolling!
Bouncing ahead of its time: a Mesoamerican rubber ball and handstone
We’ll even throw in a free album.