Resurrecting an ancient Mesoamerican sport

Originally published at: Resurrecting an ancient Mesoamerican sport | Boing Boing


That was cool, especially seeing someone wearing a Jaguar Helmet*. I’ve seen them in art before, but actual footage really shows off how impressive a piece of headgear it is. Plus, those blokes look like absolute units.


The Beeb could equally do this in UK by finding a suitable side of morris dancers talking about their Druidic roots and persecution by puritans after the civil war, but they have already been there, done that with pipe, tabor, fiddle, squeezebox, bells, ribbons, and sticks.

1 Like

It was because of these ritual practices around the game that it was deemed “demonic” by the invading/occupying Spaniards and outlawed.

Well, there were other ritual practises they might have banned it for as well (killjoys!). From Teh Wiki.

The association between human sacrifice and the ballgame appears rather late in the archaeological record, no earlier than the Classic era.[61][62] The association was particularly strong within the Classic Veracruz and the Maya cultures, where the most explicit depictions of human sacrifice can be seen on the ballcourt panels—for example at El Tajín (850–1100 CE)[63] and at Chichen Itza (900–1200 CE)—as well as on the decapitated ballplayer stelae from the Classic Veracruz site of Aparicio (700–900 CE). The Postclassic Maya religious and quasi-historical narrative, the Popol Vuh, also links human sacrifice with the ballgame (see below).

Captives were often shown in Maya art, and it is assumed that these captives were sacrificed after losing a rigged ritual ballgame.[64] Rather than nearly nude and sometimes battered captives, however, the ballcourts at El Tajín and Chichen Itza show the sacrifice of practiced ballplayers, perhaps the captain of a team.[65][66] Decapitation is particularly associated with the ballgame—severed heads are featured in much Late Classic ballgame art and appear repeatedly in the Popol Vuh. There has been speculation that the heads and skulls were used as balls.[67]


With a ball that heavy, you sure wouldn’t want to try catching or kicking it. The hip is about the only place you could use without automatic injury.


I’d heard this sport described many times but when I first saw the ball courts during a trip to Chichen Itza I still had a hard time believing it. “You’re telling me that a bunch of guys were able to knock a seven-pound ball through that tiny little goal ring up on the wall using only their hips? Surely someone got a translation wrong.”

It wasn’t until a more recent visit to the Yucatán that I got to see a live exhibition match (in period costume and all) where it all came together. It takes quite an impressive level of skill just to play the game, but seeing those goals was thrilling and I’m not even a huge sports guy.


I’d always read that nobody is quite sure of the rules of the original game. Is the recreation a best guess or has new information been uncovered?


i visited the yucatan and saw a mayan ball court had the same questions. I dont know why i never looked it up until now (your comment prompted me) but just saw what looked like a recreation of the sport, and in the video i saw, it looked like the guys almost could walk up a ramp right next to a larger ring to make a goal. Which still doesn’t totally explain the smaller rings high up on a wall. Im not saying there wasn’t a way to do it but im still confused and very curious.

This is the video I just watched (a player makes a goal near the end of the clip): Xcaret - Pok-ta-Pok - Mayan ball game - YouTube


It seems like the game should have a Mayan name.


looking it up, it looks like “Pok-ta-pok” is a word coined by a danish archaeologist, but the mayan name for it is “Pitz” and the Aztecs called their version “ōllamalitzli” or “ollama”


To be fair, sacrificing the losing team also made it look bad in the Spaniards’ eyes. (Not that they had a problem with murdering people per se, but just that for them, losing a game just wasn’t one of the circumstances in which it was acceptable to murder people, religious aspects aside.)

Also, I have to say, the president of the Mesoamerican Ballgame Association has the coolest look - she’s totally punk af. I’m now imagining an alternate history where the punk/new-wave movement had been centered around Mexico rather than the UK, so instead of Siouxsie Sioux and Adam Ant, we had people who looked like her.

Although traditionally it was also supposedly bounced off elbows, legs and heads. I suspect injuries were common.

Yeah, I think it’s a speculative reconstruction.


John Scalzi appropriated this theme in Head On

1 Like

In the exhibition, were any players wearing any hip protection — if any?

1 Like

I wasn’t that close to the court but from what I could see it looked like they were in outfits resembling the near-nude period garb of the pre-Columbian Maya.

It looked a lot like this:


This topic was automatically closed after 5 days. New replies are no longer allowed.