The Mesoamerican ballgame was a ritual sport played by the Prehispanic peoples of Mesoamerica for over 3,000 years.
But to call it Mesoamerican is a bit of a misnomer. This ceremonial sport is believed to have been practiced as far north as the southern United States and Costa Rica in Central America.
There is even speculation that the Prehispanic game known as Batú in Puerto Rico and a handful of other Caribbean islands may be a form of the Mesoamerican ballgame imported to the region by the Maya. But this is mere speculation.
From time to time, ritual sacrifice was a component of the ceremony, with war captives being the most common victims. Yet, there is little consensus regarding the exact nature of ritual sacrifice or how often it took place.
Part of this confusion comes from the fact that Mesoamerica is a vast region covering five nations, and as we have already mentioned, variations of the ballgame can be found well outside its borders.
Aside from the extent of the geographical area, it’s also essential to remember that traditions evolve. This means that the practice of early forms of this ritual/game had very different features and belief systems associated with them across other times and places.
But enough about what we do not know, and on to the facts, such as they are.
The Mesoamerican ballgame is thought to be full of symbolism and religious meaning. Notions of duality, life and death, and cosmic symbolism are currently cited as essential aspects of the ceremony. Still, as no first-hand ancient description survives, it is impossible to know.
The ballgame goes by several different names depending on the region, with the Maya of the Yucatán referring to it as pok ta pok, while in central Mexico, it is known as tlachtli, and ulama in Sinaloa.
Mesoamerican ballcourts vary significantly in their configuration, with no standard design or size. The origins of the games stretch back as far as the 16th century BCE in tropical regions such as the Yucatán and Chiapas.
Some of the oldest surviving ballcourts include examples in southern Chiapas and within the city limits of Mérida, Yucatán.
Despite what many people believe, not all Mesoamerican ballcourts were equipped with rings through which the ball would pass. Rather, they had simple stone markers.
The most famous stone marker ballcourts are in the great Maya city of Copan, where macaw heads serve this purpose.
Though it is difficult to say, the rings of the Mesoamerican ballgame seem to be a Toltec innovation, which then spread throughout Mesoamerica.
One of the few consistent elements of the game appears to be the rubber ball that is employed. Weighing roughly nine pounds, the object of the ceremony was to hit the mark or get it through the hoop to score a point.
Different cultures had different rules about accomplishing this feat, but in most cases, using hands was forbidden. As a result, the players who had the ball needed to gain momentum to bounce it and then control it with hips, elbows, and knees.
The Grand Ballcourt complex in Chichén Itzá is not just the largest of Chichén Itzá’s 13 known ballcourts but the largest and best-preserved in all of Mesoamerica. The ballcourt is delineated by two 95-meter-long parallel platforms flanking the main playing area.
Aside from its impressive size, Chichén Itzá’s Grand Ballcourt is also essential for its frescoes depicting a human sacrifice, supposedly after the conclusion of a match.
Much has been written about the sacrificial element in this game. Some have speculated that the captain of the winning team was honorably sacrificed, while others argue that this grisly outcome was afforded to the loser.
Some speculation is that the heads of the sacrificed captain would be placed atop the city’s tzompantli or skull platform.
Participants in the sport are represented in stone carvings as being dressed in highly elaborate ceremonial garb, though whether this was just for show remains a mystery.
But there is good reason to believe that when it came to the Mesoamerican ballgame, the stakes were not always life and death. Some scholars argue that even children may have participated in the game for recreation.
In the case of the Aztecs, it is widely believed that the Mesoamerican ballgame was a proxy for warfare, similar to the so-called flower wars fought between the Triple Alliance and its enemies, including the Tlaxcalteca.
In Teotihuacan, ballcourts likely did not survive, but a handful of depictions referring to the ceremony can be found at the site.
In recent decades, the Mesoamerican ballgame has become a tourist spectacle across much of México, with exhibitions staged at theme parks like Xcaret and notably in Mérida on Wednesdays across from the city’s cathedral.
There is also a league where teams from across Mesoamerica compete in a championship yearly, with Belize dominating the tournament for the past several years.