A Brief History Of The Mesoamerican Ballgame

Ballcourt, Uxmal
Ballcourt, Uxmal | © Rob Young/Flickr

Northern England Writer

If you’ve ever visited an archaeological site in Mexico – think Chichén Itzá, Palenque or Monte Albán – the chances are you’ve come across at least one Mesoamerican ballcourt in your time. You probably remember the strange stone ‘hoops’ that marked either end of the pitch, although perhaps you don’t recall what exactly the juego de pelota (ballgame) was all about. With that in mind, here’s a brief history of this uniquely Mesoamerican pastime.
By 1400 BCE at the very least, the Mesoamerican ballgame was in full swing across much of south-east Mexico – in fact, the oldest known court was discovered in Olmec settlements in Soconusco, Veracruz – and it was soon to spread north to central Mexico. To date, there are thought to be some 1300 ballcourts still in existence, although the addition of the now iconic ‘hoops’ was actually something introduced by the Mayans, before being copied by the Aztecs and Toltecs. While size varies, the long, slim design of the courts, hemmed in on either side by sloping walls, barely appears to have changed over thousands of years. It seems Mesoamericans were as much creatures of habit as we are nowadays.

The iconic hoop

The superstitions and ritualistic tendencies professional sports players have nowadays are nothing compared to the actual rituals associated with the world’s oldest sport. The most gruesome was the practice of beheading the losing team’s captain. Ritual human sacrifice wasn’t just reserved for losers though, as prisoners of war duped into playing rigged games often suffered the same fate, whereas winners were rewarded with highly prized trophies. Putting sacrifice aside for a moment, evidence does suggest that a good old game of juego de pelota could have just been recreational though.

As well as sacrifice, the Mesoamerican ballgame was extremely significant in many myths; Aztecs saw it as representative of the sun fighting the night, whereas Mayas found it more representative of a battle between those in the underworld against the living.

Ballcourt, Chichén Itzá
Ballcourt, Uxmal

As well as some odd rules and a fascinating history, what the English language knows as the Mesoamerican ballgame also goes by many other titles; in Nahuatl, it’s known as ōllamaliztli, in Maya it’s pitz and modern Spanish knows it simply as juego de pelota. As you can imagine, the variety of indigenous people that indulged in this once popular pastime mean that it had a few distinct but overall similar forms. In fact, a modernised version, known as ulama, is still played in some areas of Sinaloa.

Rubber ball used in the Mesoamerican ballgame

Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.

Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.

Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.

Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.

We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.

Culture Trip Spring Sale

Save up to $1,100 on our unique small-group trips! Limited spots.

Edit article