Sunday is game day and all around the world sports enthusiasts cheer for their home team. Football, soccer, basketball, hockey—athletes don their team colors, giving their all as if it were a matter of life or death. But devotion to team sport is not a modern concept, and to the Mayans and other Mesoamerican cultures, devotion to the "game" truly was a matter of life or death.
Meso (or middle) America refers to the sub-tropical lands that extend
south from central Mexico through Nicaragua, and the many civilizations
that flourished in the region for nearly 3000 years before the arrival
of the Europeans.
when visiting the ruins of these ancient cultures, travelers can see
the courts where these ballgames, considered to be the world's oldest
team sport, were played. Like modern superdomes, these ball courts were
a major part of a city's infrastructure and came to represent its wealth
and power. Two high walls composed an alley with end zones making the
court resemble the capital letter 'I'. Although not much is known about
how the sport was enacted, it is speculated that two opposing teams attempted
to have the rubber ball penetrate the defense's end zone without using
their hands. As the sport evolved, giant stone rings in the walls of
the alley provided more obstacles to pass the ball through in hope of
scoring. The balls varied in size from softball to beachball and could
weigh up to eight pounds. Some relics of balls have been found with skulls
in the middle and were thought to bounce even higher having a hollow
core. The earliest rubber ball was found at the Olmec site of El Manati,
in the Mexican state of Vera Cruz. It is estimated to be 3600 years old!
The stakes were high for the athletes in these games. Their belief systems
were based on a balance of forces. These ancient people wanted to keep
their gods happy in order to keep the sun rising in the east and rain
pouring on their crops. And to keep this balance level, cities would
often sacrifice members of the losing team, making the incentive to win
greater than any trophy.
Two cultures that were significant in the development of the Ballgame
were the Olmec and the Maya. The Olmec are generally thought to be the
mother culture from which all other Mesoamerican cultures were derived.
The name Olmec means "people of the land of rubber." Their
huge helmeted stone heads, weighing up to 40 tons, are speculated to
be portraits of famous ball players.
the Olmecs, the Mayan Civilization thrived from 250 AD to 1400 AD. Their
zest for the ballgame is evident from the many ruins of their ball courts
including the giant court at Chichen Itza, the largest of all the sites.
The game was so popular that aspects of the sport are found in the Mayan
Creation Story which tells the story of two hero twins who were players.
The ballgame was so rooted in the culture that "ballplayer" is
used as a ceremonial title of kings.
Like modern sports, the uniform was an essential part of the game. The
athletes entered the court wearing their finest jewels, animal skins,
and feathered headdresses. The players did not compete in this garb as
the fast-paced nature of the game required agility and the aggressive
action required protective equipment. Uniforms consisted mainly of a
loincloth, sometimes with leather hip guards, a thick girdle made of
wood or wicker covered in leather or fabric, and a decorative stone accessory
worn on the girdle. Knee guards and helmets were also worn in some communities.
A decorative carved stone was sometimes used to hit the ball like a bat
or a stick. The balls were made of rubber, produced from plants indigenous
to the area.
The rise of Christianity in the Mesoamerican world led to the end of
the ballgame. The Spanish viewed the event as pagan ritual and outlawed
the sport. Disease, forced labor and massacre, diminished the native
populations, taking with them the world's first team sport. The modern
game of Ulamu, played in the Mexican state of Sinaloa, is thought to
be its closest equivalent.
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