The Ancient Mesoamerican Ballgame

In Culture, Play, Playa del Carmen & Tulum by Belen Molina

While vacationing at some of Mexico’s most alluring destinations, you may want to venture outside the all-inclusive world of your resort in order to explore the archeological sites and the rich cultural legacy of some of Mexico’s major pre-Columbian Mesoamerican civilizations. As you walk through the ruins of some of these incredible ancient cities, you may stumble upon what seems like a big open ball court; this is the place where the famous Juego de Pelota, or Mesoamerican Ballgame, took place.

It is believed that the Mesoamerican Ballgame sport originated around 1400 A.C. and was played by many pre-Colombian Mesoamerican civilizations. While the game had important ritual and religious aspects to it, it was also played casually for recreation purposes. Many scientists also believe that the game was a way to ease tensions and often resolve conflicts associated with land, taxation, and trade disputes, without having to resort to violence. In other words, the Mesoamerican Ballgame was often used as an alternative to war.

Although the precise rules of the game are unknown, ulama, a modern version of the game that is still practiced in certain parts of Mexico and Guatemala, sheds some light on what the Mesoamerican Ballgame was really like. It is believed that the main goal of the game was to keep the ball in play and to keep it from coming into contact with the floor. The ball, which was made of rubber, symbolized the sun and could weigh as much as nine pounds. In the most widely recognized version of the game, players struck the ball using their hips, elbows, and knees. The stone hoops attached to the sides of the ball court were added later on, changing the rules of the game completely. Putting the ball through the hoop was a very rare event, but when it happened, it meant automatic victory for the team who accomplished it. It was also believed that ballplayers belonging to the winning team were protected and supported by the Gods.

Juego de Pelota, Chichen Itza

Juego de Pelota, Chichen Itza

The association between human sacrifice and the ballgame appears no earlier than the Classic Era. While it is still unclear as to whether the winning team or the losing team was sacrificed, the practice of beheading is strongly associated with the Mesoamerican Ballgame, particularly within the Classic Veracruz and Mayan Cultures.

Monte Alban, Oaxaca

Juego de Pelota, Monte Alban

Ballgame courts can be found along the entire region of Mesoamerica, as far north as the state of Arizona, and as far south as southern Nicaragua. However, some of the most incredible and well-preserved ball courts can be found in Mexico. Here are some of our recommendations:

  1. Monte Alban in the state of Oaxaca
  2. Chichen Itza in the state of Yucatán
  3. Uxmal in the state of Yucatán
  4. Yagul in the state of Oaxaca
  5. Xochicalco in the state of Morelos
  6. Coba in the state of Quintana Roo

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