Game On

Excavation of 3,400-year-old ballcourt rewrites the origin of an ancient, brutal game

Archaeologists may have been wrong for decades about this iconic and mysterious game's origins.

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The history of sports may need to be rewritten: A new discovery disputes the origin story of the iconic, brutal and mysterious Mesoamerican ball game, played by ancient South and Central American civilizations from the Olmecs to the Aztecs.

The remains of the newly-discovered ballcourt in Oaxaca, Mexico upend some common assumptions about the root of the game, which was once played in giant, open-air courts with a rubber ball across Mesoamerica.

The court is dated at 3,400 years old — some 800 years older than any other ballcourt found thus far. The discovery suggests the game is far more ancient and far more popular across Mesoamerica than scientists realized.

Previously, researchers thought the game was played mainly in lowland areas of present-day Guatemala, Belize, Mexico, Honduras, and El Salvador. And it was perhaps as popular as modern-day soccer: 2,300 ballcourts have been discovered in these countries.

But it turns out people living in the region's highlands — including Oaxaca — were playing the same game centuries before researchers had thought. This 3,400 year-old site offers the first evidence that both lowland and highland societies were part of the ballgame’s evolution.

"We challenge the lowland paradigm by providing evidence that the earliest highland ballcourt dates to the Early Formative, nearly a millennium earlier than any previous highland architectural data," the paper's authors write.

The researchers describe the site in a paper published Friday in the journal Science Advances.

Take me out to the ball game

The exact origins of the game are difficult to trace, but the evidence researchers had to hand prior to this finding suggested that it was mainly confined to lowland societies.

Aside from the thousands of courts discovered in these areas, scientists also know that the rubber the ball game's balls were made from comes from a tree species called Castilla elastica, which grew across the lowland plains of southern Mesoamerica.

Now, archaeologists know that the origins of the ball game are more complex. Alongside the excavated remains of two ballcourts, researchers have found ceramic figures of ballplayers that also lend weight to the theory that the ball game was being played in the Mesoamerican highlands long before it made it to the lowlands.

Ballplayer figurine discovered in Oaxaca, Mexico. Blomster and Salazar Chávez

The new paper fills in some other crucial details about the rules of the ball game. The archaeologists report that it was “a formal pan-Mesoamerican sport played with a rubber ball in an architectural ballcourt, players hitting the ball with their hips rather than hands.”

The ball game served an important purpose in ritual, too, and appears to have been politically significant, the paper's authors say.

For the Maya and Aztec people, the ball game was a symbol of the “regeneration of life and the maintenance of cosmic order," they say. There is also evidence to suggest that it may have played a role in ritual human sacrifice.

But while this high stakes game appears to have endured in popularity for centuries across Mesoamerica, it wasn't the only ball game these ancient peoples played. What makes the ball game distinct is the amount of care that went into playing the game, the paper's authors say.

“The architectural component of the ballgame corresponds with the development of a more structured version of the game,” the study authors write.

Much like the giant football stadiums of today, the masonry courts and hard rubber balls used in the ball game hint at just how important it was to ancient Mesoamericans — perhaps even to the point of being a matter of life and death.

Abstract: The ballgame represents one of the most enduring and iconic features of ancient Mesoamerican civilization, yet its origins and evolution remain poorly understood, primarily associated with the Gulf Coast and southern Pacific coastal lowlands. While one early ballcourt dates to 1650 BCE from the Chiapas lowlands, ballcourts have remained undocumented in the Mesoamerican highlands until a millennium later, suggesting less involvement by highland civilizations in the ballgame’s evolution. We provide new data from the southern highlands of Mexico, from the Early Formative period (1500–1000 BCE), that necessitate revising previous paradigms. Along with ball- player imagery, we recently excavated the earliest highland Mesoamerican ballcourt, dating to 1374 BCE, at the site of Etlatongo, in the Mixtec region of Oaxaca. We conclude that Early Formative highland villagers played an important role in the origins of the formal Mesoamerican ballgame, which later evolved into a crucial component of subsequent states.
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