Ballgames: Mesoamerican Ballgames

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Scholars employ the phrase "Mesoamerican ballgame" to refer to a diverse number of sport or ritual activities involving the use of a ball. All Mesoamerican peoples practiced "the ballgame" in one form or another. The three best-known forms of the game are the hipball, handball, and stickball variants.

Temporal and Regional Diversity

Mesoamerica is an ethnically, linguistically, and geographically varied region that is identifiable by shared cultural traits and religious beliefs which date to the pre-Columbian era (i.e., prior to the sixteenth century, which brought European contact). This culturally distinctive area encompasses the contemporary political boundaries of Mexico (excluding the northern, desert region), Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Mesoamerican ballgames reflect the diversity of the cultural and geographic environment in which they originated. The Mesoamerican ballgame also had strong ties with the ballgames of peoples of the North American Southwest and Caribbean.

Mesoamerican ballgames varied both temporally and regionally. Temporal variations appear to be related to fluctuations in popularity, to regionally specific and other developments, and to the particular socio-political and religious context and significance attributed to the game. Regional distinctions may also, in some cases, have had some relationship with ethnicity and identity. Scholars generally concur (with differences in interpretation on the specific points) that from their inception, which occurred at least as early as the Early Formative period (1200900 bce), all forms of the Mesoamerican ballgame shared fundamental ideological associations with creation mythology and with beliefs about the cycles of life and death, rain and fertility, and the cosmos.

Of all known Mesoamerican ballgames, the historic, artistic, and archaeological record has provided the most detailed information about the hipball game, and it is thus this form of the game that is most popularly thought of as "the" Mesoamerican ballgame. However, the hipball game also had numerous forms, dependent upon period, cultural and architectural context, costuming, equipment, and modes of play, across time and space in Mesoamerica. The hipball game was fully developed by the Early Formative period in the Socomusco region (the southern coastal plain and piedmont of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and northern Guatemala, respectively), and the Veracruz-Tabasco Gulf Coast region associated with the Olmec civilization. In Nahuatl, the language of the Mexica (Aztec) people of the later Postclassic period (thirteenth to early sixteenth centuries ce), the hipball game was known as ollama or ullama (from olli, the word for rubber, which is related to the term ollin, meaning "movement"). The hipball game is still played today in Sinaloa state, in northwestern Mexico, although without the protective equipment of antiquity, and in an open field, rather than a court. Of the other relatively well-known forms of ballgame, the stick-ball game is particularly associated with the Teotihuacan culture of Central Mexico, and the handball game is best known at the site of Dainzu, Oaxaca state, Mexico.


Different forms of the ballgame employed different types of paraphernalia. Common to all pre-Columbian hipball games was the use of padding around the waist and hips. This padding was used to propel the ball with greater force than was possible with an unpadded hip, while offering protection to the body during the course of this physically intensive game. Hip and waist protectors were probably made of padded cotton, leather, wicker, or wood. The only surviving pre-Columbian hip pads are the well-known, often elaborately carved, stone "yokes" (misnamed because of their physical appearance). These are particularly associated with the cultures of the Gulf Coast of Veracruz and Tabasco states, from the Formative through the Terminal Classic periods (c. 900 bce to c. 900 ce), although examples are known elsewhere in Mesoamerica. Some stone yokes were functional, but a larger number were evidently ceremonial and symbolic.

Other stone hipball game paraphernalia survive from the Gulf Coast region. Carved stone hachas, so called because of the axe-like shape of many of these objects, were inserted into the yokes as chest protectors, or to project the ball. John Scott has suggested that those carved with twisted human faces were worn by victorious players of ritual games to represent the severed heads of players they had defeated. The stone palmas (referring to their palm-frond shape) were also carved with elaborate iconography related to religious or ritual components of the game, including references to the supernatural world and human sacrifice. Palmas were also inserted into the hip-pad for the same purposes as hachas. Mary Ellen Miller and Karl Taube also suggest that palmas were displayed in ballcourts as architectural decoration. Stone manoplas (handstones), often referred to in the literature as "knuckledusters," are more generally found throughout Mesoamerica. These were employed to project the ball in some forms of the hipball game, might have also been used in a ritual variant of the handball game and, according to Karl Taube and other researchers, were evidently employed as actual knuckledusters ("brass knuckles") in ritualized one-on-one boxing combats. Hipball players also wore loin coverings and knee pads on one knee, to protect their bodies when they slid onto their upper thighs or when they dropped to one knee to check the ball during the course of the game.

Ritualized versions of the hipball game are are distinctive in their use of ceremonial costuming, including elaborate headdresses, jewelry, and ornate forms of equipment. Ceremonial costuming often referenced the underlying beliefs associated with the ballgame; however, it is important to note that these are very specific and not recoverable though generalizations. For example, Classic Maya nobles, at sites such as Yaxchilan, Chiapas state, Mexico, are shown in some ritual games sporting the net kilt and other costume elements associated with the Maya Maize God, whose actions were emulated by Maya rulers to retain and underscore their socio-political and spiritual success.

Stickball games were also known in Mesoamerica. Players are depicted with bat-like or field hockey-like sticks, striking a soft-ball-sized ball in a defined, open field. Stickball players are represented in pre-Columbian art wearing loin cloths, head coverings, bands around the knees, andin elaborated forms of the gamewith fancy dress elements. Although the stickball game was particular to Central Mexico, especially the great city and culture of Teotihuacan, Theodore Stern has documented this ballgame variant elsewhere in Mesoamerican and the Caribbean. A modern form of the stickball game is played in Michoacán state, Mexico, using simple wooden bats. This game is played at night, with the ball set on fire at the beginning of the game as a symbolic reference to the sun.

Handball games are known throughout Mesoamerica from the Formative through the Classic periods. At the Late Formative site (c. 200 bce to c. 200 ce) of Dainzu, in Oaxaca, carved stone slabs represent handball players wearing grilled helmets, gauntlet-like gloves, padded clothing over the torso and legs, thick knee pads on both knees, and sandals. Such full-body covering suggests a particularly energetic and perhaps dangerous form of ballgame. The contemporary Mixtec ballgame (Juego de Pelota Mixteca ), known principally in Oaxaca, may descend from the Dainzu handball game.


The hipball game used a rubber ball that was as much as a foot or more in diameter and which may have weighed seven or more pounds when solid. However, proportionately much larger balls are represented in Maya art of the Classic period (300 to 900 ce). The Terminal Classic (c. 800 to 1200 ce) carved stone panels lining the Great Ballcourt at Chichén Itza depict very large balls with skulls at the center. Some scholars propose that both sets of images might be taken literally: overly large, hollow-core balls might have been used in some Maya hipball games, whereas the skulls of sacrificed individuals may have been used to form ball cores in ritual games (although no known examples survive). The earliest known surviving rubber balls were excavated from the offerings of El Manati, Veracruz, at a spring site sacred to the Formative Olmec civilization of the Gulf Coast. The largest and most spherical of these are ten inches in diameter, and have been dated by the excavators to around 1600 bce.

Stickball and handball games probably used small, solid rubber balls. However, some researchers have suggested that for ritualized handball games, the rubber balls may have been replaced with stone spheroids. The rubber used to make the various balls came from any of the several rubber-producing plants and trees found throughout Mesoamerica and the North American Southwest. In Mesoamerica, rubber was used not only for the ballgame, but in offerings, particularly to rain deities, and for medicinal purposes.


Ballgame courts, fields, and the structures on which ritual ballgames were enacted, reflect some of the diversity of Mesoamerican ballgames, although these features tend to share general characteristics.

The best-known form of Mesoamerican ballcourt is the masonry court designed for hipball games. The earliest versions of these structures date to approximately 1400 bce and are found in the Socomusco and Gulf Coast regions, although there may be examples dating as early as the fifth century bce. Early Soconusco and Gulf Coast Olmec heartland courts were formed by two parallel earthen mounds flanking and delineating a central playing court.

In general, Late Formative and Classic period hipball courts have playing alleys and end zones laid out in a shape similar to the capital letter "I." The court's boundaries are defined by two parallel platform mound structures. The alley walls are sloped and typically have benches along the sides. Three markers are commonly located down the axial center of the alley. Specialized superstructures containing steambaths and other preparatory facilities were built atop the platform mounds. In most cases, spectators were probably seated along platforms and structures located around, and outside of, each end zone. Postclassic (c. 900 to 1521 ce) ballcourts generally have perpendicular side walls with stone ring markers.

Mary Ellen Miller and Stephen Houston, and others including David Friedel, Linda Schele, and Joy Parker, have identified symbolic courts used for ritualized ballgames. These ritual courts comprise temple stairways such as that of the war monument Temple 33, at the Maya site of Yaxchilan, and patios such as the Classic period East and West Courts of Copan, Honduras. They may also include the Formative period sunken court of Teopantecuanitlan, Guerrero state, Mexico.

Stickball and handball games employed defined, open playing fields. Eric Taladoire has suggested that one form of formal court may have been used for the handball game as played in Oaxaca during the Formative period.

The Rules

The rules of Mesoamerican ballgames were specific to each particular game, and, although broadly understood by researchers, have not been recovered in detail. Most ballgames were played with two competing teams facing each other at either end of the playing field or court. In hipball, points were scored by hitting the ball toward the alley markers, the end zones, or the rings on the alley walls. The ball typically was hit with the thighs, buttocks, and upper arms. Bare hands or manoplas were employed only to set the ball into motion, since the use of the hands to strike the ball was not permitted, except in the case of handball games. Athletic vigor, physical intensity, and a high degree of competition seem to characterize all Mesoamerican ballgames. In addition, it is evident that both men and women played the ballgame.

Social, Political, and Religious Significance

Mesoamerican ballgames were generally conducted within one of two broad contexts: sport and ritual. As pure sport, pre-Columbian ballgames were not unlike football, soccer, and baseball as they are known today. Outstanding athletes were highly regarded, and could even achieve star-like status. Communities competed with one another through their teams. Betting on the games is known to have been popular at the time of Spanish contact, with desirable items, such as fine cotton shirts, being wagered on favorite teams or players. pre-Columbian ballgames are distinctive from contemporary occidental ball sports, however, in the complexity of meaning attached to them, and their symbolic connection to the events of creation and universal cycles.

Surviving Mesoamerican creation stories tell of primordial beings playing life-and-death ballgames in mythical time. For example, the sixteenth-century Quiché Maya community book, The Popol Vuh, and Classic period Maya hieroglyphic texts, recount how the legendary Hero Twins were summoned to the Underworld to play a deadly ballgame with the Underworld deities. The Twins survived several trials, defeated the Underworld gods, and resurrected their father, the Maize God, in the ballcourt, which is named as the place of sacrifice (and the locus of rebirth or renewal). This tradition explains how corn was brought into the world and provides a metaphor for the life cycle of birth, death, and regeneration as it is dramatically experienced by agrarian societies in this geographic region, with its distinctive rainy and dry seasons. Certain ballgames were thus directly associated with rain deities, and with the coming of the rains and subsequent fertility of the earth.

Very early on, Mesoamerican ballgames were linked to political authority and the fundamental role of rulers as providers for their communities. If there were natural disasters such as drought and famine, or political and military defeats, the legitimacy of an individual's rule could seriously be called into question. At such times, some ballgames came to serve as public spectacles, full of courtly pomp and circumstance, for the ritual reenactment of warfare and success on the battlefield. Captives were made to play staged, fixed, "games" that were essentially mock combats with predetermined outcomes. The end result of these events was the sacrifice and, frequently, decapitation and dismemberment of defeated players. In some cases, severed heads, taken as trophies in these ritualized ballgames, were displayed on nearby skull racks, known by the Nahuatl term tzompantlis.

Since the earliest scholarship in Mesoamerica, researchers have noticed that, in certain ballgames, the movement of the ball was associated with the movement of cosmic bodies, particularly the sun. It is clear, however, that these associations were very particular and were framed in specific cultural ways, dependent upon the time and location of the game.

Popularized misconceptions of the Mesoamerican Ballgame suggest that the winners of ritualized games were the ones to be sacrificed. No substantiated or credible academic evidence supports this belief, nor does the idea conform in any way to the scholarly and indigenous understanding of pre-Columbian cultures in Mesoamerica.

The Mesoamerican ballgame was a central component of Mesoamerican society and culture. Indeed, ballcourts, which could be strategically located on community boundaries or on the periphery of major centers, often functioned as the loci for ritual and interaction between social and political entities, including alliance building, trade, and exchange.

See Also

Sports and Religion.


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Heather S. Orr (2005)

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Ballgames: Mesoamerican Ballgames

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