Conclusion and the Modern Era

The ball games of Mesoamerica were an essential part of both daily and ritual life.  These games represent the creation of the world for the Mayans, the cycles of the sun for the Aztec, and various other elements like life and motion.  We can see depictions of the game in ceramics, figurines, and the relics of the ball courts themselves; this despite the fact that there are few actual rubber balls.  The ball game was also used to promote sacrifice and tribute across the continent, though some of the uses were grounded in the mundane. The ball game was a place for amateur competition and friendly contest.

This practice continues today. Since the Late Postclassic, a secular type of ball game distinguished itself from the traditional ritual ball game, though the original continued. This second game is recreational in nature. The modern recreational ball game can be divided into three versions that are regionally separated: Ulama de Brazo, Ulama de Cadera, and Ulama de Palo.

Ulama de Brazo is played in northern Sinaloa. Two teams of three facing each other. Instead of their hips, the players hit the ball with their forearms, which are protected by padding. It is illegal for the players to contact the ball with any other part of their body. They also protect their knees with pads.

Ulama de Cadera is found in the south of Sinaloa. Teams tend to be made of five or more. Players wear hip protection and a leather belt high on their thighs. In this case, the traditional hip is used to move the ball.

Finally, Ulama de Palo is different in that the players wield a “palo” or wooden racket. Team sizes are more similar to Ulama de Brazo. This certain game was a relic of the past until it was revived in the 1980’s.


A Comparison of the Aztec and Mayan Ball Game

Two of the larger sites that are representative of their respective areas are Chichen Itzá, for the Mayans, and Tenochtitlan, for the Aztecs.  There were several important differences in architecture, the way the game was played, and the ritual significance.

Chichen Itzá was the largest ball court in all of Mesoamerica. The sides of the court, in the middle of the “I” shaped formation, had high, small hoops.  Use of these hoops would require smaller balls than those typically represented in the ceramic artwork.  Round markers surrounded the alleyways leading into the court that most likely warned users of the space– the entranceway was possibly seen as a portal.


For the Aztec’s the court was similarly set up. Recent evidence at Tenochtitlan found about twenty feet under the “end zones” show offering boxes.  In these boxes were three basic objects: flint knives probably representing sacrifice, small shell femurs or ceramics in the shape of four-fingered hands probably representing death, and miniature figurines of musical instruments probably as offerings to the Aztec ball game gods of music and dance – Xochipilli and Macuilxochitl.

Mayan artwork shows the armor as if quilted from cotton. Mayan players are sometimes depicted with their legs and arms wrapped; one of the most important pieces were the kneepads. Players are often depicted wearing the headdress of a Mayan god – for the victors it was the God of war and sacrifice. The most common headgear in ceramic representations depicted a dear headdress that stood for a hunter’s hat.  Both of these headdresses linked to war and hunting – both territories of the young elite men.


Aztec players typically used similar protective equipment, though occasionally the players would wield obsidian bladed clubs – their uses are anyone’s guess.  In the Aztec Empire the ball court was used in festivals with celebratory sacrifices at the end.

For the Mayans, the ritual of the ball game was extremely important. The ball game represented rebirth and renewal and was seen as critical for the continuation of the world and prosperity.  It was thought for a long time that sacrifices were only committed at Chichen Itzá and not other ball courts – this has been proved wrong however through recent translations of Popol Vuh.

For the Aztecs the ball game was used more for entertainment and tribute.  Kings would play the game for fun, when watching they would gamble.  Commoners and elite alike enjoyed the game.   The kings used the game to divert the attention of the populace at times of unrest. There was, however, a connection for the Aztec between the travelling of the ball and the passage of the sun.  This difference in ritual belief in the game may be related to the different agricultural practices that would have to been used in the different regions.  There was also a major connection between the Aztec ball game, skull racks, and beheading.  For example, Hernando Cortez’s ascribed a map of Tenochtitlan labeled the ball court as Tzompantli, the Aztec word for skull rack – at this particular ball court there were in fact thousands of skulls.

Images courtesy of Abigail Holeman (UVA)

Functionality of the Ballcourt

In 1500 B.C, the Mesoamerican ball players began to use a rubber ball instead of the previously used wooden or leather balls. Archaeological evidence suggests that the Olmec were the first to play the ballgame during this time period.

The Olmec courts were roughly the size of a modern day football field; however, they were shaped differently. As seen from an aerial view, the courts look like a capital “I” with two perpendicular end zones at the top and bottom.  Ballplayers would bounce the balls against walls that surrounded the court. In the center of the court on either side were two stone hoops. The architecture of the court included elaborate paintings, ornate carvings, as well as other ostentatious features. Jaguars and raptors were often depicted alongside images of human sacrifice suggesting a connection between the ball game and divinity.


Computer Reconstruction of the ancient ballcourt at Chichén Itzá.

Rules of play varied throughout different regions. During the games certain rules were enforced such as in the Maya game where only the knees and butt were allowed to touch and move the rubber ball. Archaeological interpretations suggest that plays were spread out along the court and the ball was passed at a fast rate. Players who could get the ball through the hoops were seen as the most talented. In order to score points:

1. an opposing player must miss a shot at the hoop,

2. the opposing team must be unable to keep possession of the ball following two bounces,

3. or the opposing team could cause the ball to go out of bounds.

Note that these rules are only suggestions as to how ballplayers may have played the game. Archaeologists are unsure of the precise rules because the scarce evidence we have is garnered from the interpretations made from sculptures, art, ball courts, and glyphs.  Occasionally we find artifacts in the form of equipment and gear the ballplayers may have used, but most artifacts did not preserve well.


Ballgame hoop at Chichén Itzá.

This sport was very unique throughout the world from 1500 B.C. onward because it was a team sport. At the time, society was preoccupied with individual sports instead, such as jousting, wrestling, races, and other single-person sports. The ballgame was not only played to entertain spectators or to honor the gods, but also for exercise. Aspiring athletes may have practiced on the courts, most of which were men and boys. Women may have infrequently played as well. The courts may have served other functions as well. Events like theater performances and religious festivals may have been conducive to the centrality and style of the courts.

Some of the main archaeological evidence that displays the probable set up and play of the ballgame is found in groups of figurines.  Figurines found in El Opeño date as far back as 1500 B.C. All together the figurines represent a ballgame in which five male ballplayers stand around the court with manoplas (heavy mitts), which were most likely used to hit the rubber balls. There are three other figurines of women who pose as spectators of the game. Besides a helmet, all the ball players are nude. Many figurines are found elsewhere from different time periods.  The general style of the figurines suggests that the men often wore padding and carried some kind of equipment. The outfits and numbers of players on the court displayed through the figurines varies from region to region suggesting there were many different ways to play the ancient ballgame.


Mesoamerican ballgame Tableau that dates back to 400 A.D.


Olmec ballplayer.


Whittington, E. Michael., and Douglas E. Bradley. The Sport of Life and Death: The Mesoamerican Ballgame. London: Thames & Hudson, 2001. Print.

Maya Ballcourt. Digital image. Maya3D. N.p., 2013. Web. 20 Mar. 2013. <;.

The Hoop. Digital image. Chicen Itza 1987. Galenfrysinger, 2013. Web. 20 Mar. 2013. <;.

Mesoamerican Ballgame Tableau. Digital image. Mesoamerican Pottery., n.d. Web. 20 Mar. 2013. <;.

Olmec Ballplayer. Digital image. Sport/Activity: American Indigenous Games: Mesoamerican Ball Game. 4.4 Million Days, 2012. Web. 20 Mar. 2013. <;.

The Use of Rubber

Rubber is part of an ancient tradition in Mesoamerica, fundamental to many parts of life that has carried over into the modern era. Its importance and prominence is demonstrated primarily in the ball game.  Rubber is made from a plant secretion that must be treated in a complicated process before its use.  Rubber (or hule) was utilized in numerous ways ranging from personal armor, black paint during rituals, attaching stone tools, to medicinal purposes such as curing headaches or stomach problems.

Of course the primary use of rubber was in the creation of balls, used in both rituals and the ball games. The first balls made were called ultelolotli, smaller than those used in games, and were burned in ritual practice, thrown into lakes, or buried inside pyramids as sacrifices to the gods.   The balls used in the games were similar to these rituals balls in that they were highly religious and unyielding. Depending on the game, these balls have been described as being about the size of a human head. Compared to the European game balls that were made of wood, leather, or cloth, these rubber balls were distinctly known for their bounce.

Unfortunately, few rubber artifacts have been found. From the time it’s manufactured, rubber undergoes a process of deterioration. Those that have survived are almost exclusively found in areas that are flooded by relatively still, fresh water – specifically the Sacred Cenote at Chichén Itzá, the spring of El Manatí, and Tenochtitlan.  This lack of physical evidence is in contrast to the massive number of writings and inscriptions that mention the apparent wide usage of rubber.

The process of producing rubber balls has changed since the modern era. In ancient times, at least according to 16th century sources, the latex was heated and molded by hand into a ball.  This has been contested, however, by evidence that the modern technique is utilized by layering hot strips of rubber.

Symbolically, the rubber ball has a connection with motion. In Nahuatl, an Aztec language, the word for rubber, olli, and the word for movement, ollin, share a similar root. This may suggest a religious connection between the movements of the ball and the movements of divine beings.  Latex was symbolized by both the Aztec and the Mayans as the fluids of life: blood and semen. This connection is demonstrated in the Mayan word k’ik – which means both “rubber” and “blood” – and the word quic – which means both “ball” and “blood”.  Additionally, the spherical shape of the ball could also represent the sun or the planet Venus.  Many of the larger balls have inscriptions indicating the sun gods – God N or God L. The movement of the ball in the game can be linked to the rise and fall of the sun and/or the creation or alteration of the universe.

Though it is not clear when exactly this material was first used, some evidence indicates it may have been used as far back as 3500 BP.  As such, the artifacts that are found today need to be handled with the utmost care. Light and oxygen are extremely detrimental to the preservation of these artifacts.


Whittington, E. Michael., and Douglas E. Bradley. The Sport of Life and Death: The Mesoamerican Ballgame. London: Thames & Hudson, 2001. Print.


Ball games were a fundamental part of Mesoamerican culture because they provided opportunities for secular and communal gatherings.   These games were religious rituals, rife with mystical meanings, and could reenact important events. Ball games were excuses to feast and could bring glory or death to its participants.

Archaeologists have discovered over 1500 ball courts in sites ranging from Mesoamerica to the American Southwest (the oldest of which is Paso de la Amada, some time near the end of Archaic Period). Further evidence of the prevalence of this game can be seen in sites where courts are not present through other archaeological evidence (e.g. the stone figurines at El Opeña). These games are represented in figurines and statues (e.g. the helmets partitioned helmets of the Olmec head monuments). Some statues give us important information about the game (e.g. yugos, leather protectors whose use we discovered through the stone).

While there are innumerable differences in the way this game is played, the most well known version involves seven verses seven competition. A rubber ball, pretty much standard in all versions of the game, is bounced using hips in order that it land in the opposing team’s field of play – some versions of the game involve hard to hit hoops.

It will be our goal over the next semester to explore the similarities and differences between the Aztec game Talchtli and the Mayan game   Ulama in the ways they were played and their meanings in their own individual cultures.


Evans, Susan Toby. Ancient Mexico & Central America: Archaeology and Culture History. [New York]: Thames & Hudson, 2008. Print.

Blümchen G: The Maya Ball Game. Cardiology 2009;113:231-235 (DOI: 10.1159/000203640)