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.

Sources:

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

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