Sun. Oct 2nd, 2022
Old stylized image of ball game players.

Millennia ago, on a stone field, there were teams of players wearing belts and loincloths and using their hips to hit a hard rubber ball toward targets at either end of the field. The ball game, which reenacted a creation story recorded in the Mayan religious text Popular, was an important part of political, religious and social life for the Maya and Aztecs, and for the Olmecs before them. But archaeologists don’t yet know much about where people first started playing the game or how it became a cultural phenomenon that spread across the area that now includes Guatemala, Belize, Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador.

Layers of Ball Tracks

The ball court – a stone-floored alley about 50 meters long, bordered by steep stone walls and earthen mounds – once held pride of place in the heart of the old town. But sometime between 1174 and 1102 BCE, the people of Etlatongo dismantled parts of the court and ritually “ended” its life. That ceremony left burnt bits of plant mixed with broken Olmec-style pottery, animal bones, shells and a few human bones (which may or may not come from a later burial site) scattered across the sculpted floor of the court and atop the earthen mounds. that ran along the sides.

But under those 12e century BCE ball court lay another, even older one, dating to 1374 BCE. That’s about when (as far as archaeologists can tell from the available evidence) the formalized version of the game — the game played on elaborate stone courts before crowds of wealthy, high-ranking spectators in major urban centers — was still in development. Archaeologists Jeffrey Blomster and Victor Salazar were surprised to find such an ancient ball court in Mexico’s mountainous highlands rather than in the Olmec-dominated tropical lowlands, where archaeologists have assumed the game began.

The oldest known Mesoamerican ball court, dating to 1650 BCE and having a floor of compacted earth rather than stone, is located at Paso de la Amada in Chiapas, on Mexico’s Pacific coast, just northwest of Guatemala. Until now, it seems that people only started building formal stone ball courts in the Mexican highlands almost a thousand years later. By this time, the game had been fully developed and exported to all of Mesoamerica, or so it was widely believed.

These diagrams show floor plans and cross-sections of both ball courts in Etlatongo.
enlarge These diagrams show floor plans and cross-sections of both ball courts in Etlatongo.

Formative Etlatongo Project

Who invented the ball game?

This ball court challenges that assumption. Its presence means that by 1374 BCE the game was already important enough for people in the highlands to occupy a prominent place in the city and justify the investment of resources needed to build a stone court. And that suggests that people in the highlands may also have played a role in developing the rules and layout of the court. Blomster and Salazar suggest ideas about the game may have been passed down among communities until it eventually coalesced into something that would have been recognized from one end of Mesoamerica to the other.

A modern recreation of the Mayan ball game.

The find also suggests that the ball game was already at the center of trade and interaction between regions. The usual equipment for the game was a hard rubber ball, and Castile elastica rubber trees grow in the lowland coastal areas. That’s partly why archaeologists have credited the Olmecs for inventing the game. But if the game was an important part of Etlatongo’s cultural life 3,400 years ago, there must have been a trade in rubber – or, more likely, rubber balls. And the connections between communities were not just commercial. The game itself is said to have linked distant cities and shaped their political lives.

Unanswered questions

When the Etlatongo Court was built, Mesoamerican society became more complex and power was concentrated in a few major centers. Building stone ball courts and hosting important ball games would have united communities, but those things would also have given emerging political leaders a chance to flaunt their wealth, power and status.

But there’s still a lot we don’t know about where the Mesoamerican ball game came from. The earliest versions of the ball game were probably played in open fields, and informal games were probably played for millennia wherever there was open space, meaning they left no archaeological evidence. Communities such as Etlatongo and Paso de la Amada did not begin building stone courts until the ball game became an important social and political component.

Blomster and Salazar found another structure beneath the 1374 BCE ball court at Etlatongo. It was once a long, narrow structure, laid out in the same direction as the ball court, and it was incorporated into the eastern wall of the later ball court. The layout and alignment of the first ball court are clearly based on that of the older one, Salazar told Ars, but archaeologists didn’t have enough time in the field to excavate enough of the older structure to say for sure whether it was a used to be a ball field. Archaeologists aren’t even sure how old that earliest structure is, because nothing has been associated with it that could be dated by radiocarbon.

scientific progress2020 DOI: 10.1126/sciaadv.aay6964 (About DOIs).

By akfire1

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