The sports and games of the ruins

Illustration by Ed Appleby
Illustration by Ed Appleby

Ancient game of Central and South America still played today

By Greg Waldock, Staff Writer

Sports are probably the last thing that comes to mind when you think “ancient Mayan city,” but that’s exactly what keeps turning up. Almost 1,500 Mayan sites from Mexico to South America have some form of ball court, and all apparently for roughly the same game. Some of them are even thousands of years old. A single game spread across the entire civilization and beyond, leaking into and possibly from surrounding cultures. The rules are a mystery, the myths surrounding it are fearsome, and the ruins have lasted millennia. Called pitz by the Maya, ōllamaliztli by the Mesoamericans, and Mesoamerican Ballgame by the endlessly creative anthropologists, the game still exists in a new form and is still played in its ancient home nearly 3,000 years after it first appeared.

The sport was more than just a game to both the Aztec and the Maya. Religious iconography has been found on walls across Mexico and northern South America depicting mythic heroes playing the game, or sacrifices being offered at part of a ceremony after play. It was also apparently used for conflict resolution, a form of proxy warfare that was common in the region (the Aztecs are famous for “Flower Wars,” mock battles used for capturing prisoners). Steles and bas-reliefs found across Aztec and Maya territory show players in soldier uniforms, and miniature figurines depict war captives being forced to fight. The military/sport connection was even stronger in this ballgame than it currently is for American football, which is saying something. And like American football, it’s no surprise that such a militarized sport is common in a society so often involved in warfare.

In fact, finding any large site without a large ball court is cause for research. Teotihuacan, the colossal Mesoamerican city (not actually Maya or Aztec) famous for its Avenue of the Dead and massive pyramids, is remarkable for not having any ball court at all, despite a few glyphs found on the site of a game being played. The game might have had such a huge cultural connotation that removing it was necessary to make their own identity, similar to foreign nations rejecting Coca-Cola and McDonalds. A nearby city called Xochicalco, potentially the biggest rival of Teotihuacan, has one of the largest ball courts yet found at a whopping 51 metres in length, potentially showing that a sort of cultural warfare was going on at the time.

The sport is still played in Mexico and northern South America, and has taken on a new form called ulama. It survived a Spanish attempt at eradication and is considered the major “peoples’ game” in the region, like hockey is here. This ball game, whether it’s called pitz, ōllamaliztli, ulama, or Mesoamerican Ballgame, is one of the defining cultural features of a massive and ancient culture we’re just now starting to learn about.