Mesoamericans living thousands of years ago participated in a ballgame that carried tremendous social, political, and spiritual importance. The discovery of two surprisingly ancient ballcourts in Mexico is challenging conventional notions about the development and spread of this prehistoric pastime.
New research published in Science Advances describes the discovery of two Mesoamerican ballcourts and associated ceramic figurines at the Etlatongo site in Oaxaca, Mexico. Dated to 3,400 years ago, these are now the earliest ballcourts known in the Mesoamerican highlands, predating the previous oldest courts in this mountainous region by nearly 800 years.
The authors of the new study, anthropologists Jeffrey Blomster and Victor Chavez from George Washington University, take this as evidence that the Oaxaca highlanders were “important players” in the Mesoamerican ballgame’s “origin and evolution,” as they wrote in the new paper.
Older ballcourts have been found elsewhere, namely in the Mesoamerican lowlands, but the surprisingly early presence of ballcourts at Etlatongo is forcing a rethink about the early development of this cultural activity. What’s more, the Etlatongo ballcourts featured distinctive architectural elements not seen elsewhere, which suggests these structures could be “associated with changes to the game,” speculate the authors.
Ceramic ballplayer figurines (both broken) found above the ballcourt. Both figurines feature thick belts, called yokes, with a loincloth, while the figure on the left has an additional collar element. (Image: Formative Etlatongo Project)
This Mesoamerican athletic contest involved a solid rubber ball, and it was played on narrow brick courts enclosed by angled stone walls. The rules aren’t exactly known, and the sport varied from region to region (including the size and configuration of the courts), but the general goal was to keep the ball in constant motion, similar to modern sports like volleyball and racquetball. But instead of using hands, feet, or racquets, the players used their torsos and hips to keep the heavy rubber ball in play, which they did by bouncing it off the slanted sidewalls.
Calling the Mesoamerican ballgame a “sport,” however doesn’t quite do it justice, as it held significant ritual importance, with themes involving the regeneration of life and the maintenance of cosmic order, according to the researchers. The competition symbolised heroic mortal beings in combat with nefarious deities from the underworld, in a high-stakes, good-versus-evil competition that involved nothing less than the creation of the universe. At the same time, the contests provided a nexus point for community gatherings and feasts, in addition to their important role in religion and politics.
The ballgame was a fixture of pre-Columbian society, appearing across much of Mesoamerica, including most of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, parts of Honduras, and El Salvador. The game was played by both the Aztec and the Maya, and some 2,300 probable ballcourts have been documented to date by archaeologists, according to the paper.
Paso de la Amada is the oldest known Mesoamerican ballcourt. Located in the coastal lowlands of southern Chiapas, Mexico, it dates back to 1650 BCE, making it 3,670 years old. The first of the two Etlatongo ballcourts was constructed in 1374 BCE, which is 800 years older than others found in the Central Mexican highlands and over 1,000 years older than any other ballcourt in Oaxaca, according to the paper.
Aside from Paso de la Amada, other evidence points to the lowlands as the birthplace of the Mesoamerican ballgame. The rubber used to create the balls comes from the Castilla elastica tree, which is found on the lowland plains of southern Mesoamerica. The new research doesn’t upturn any theories about where or when the game emerged, but it does point to a new area for its ongoing spread and development.
The two newly discovered ballcourts at Etlatongo date back to the Early Formative Period (1500 to 1000 BCE), which makes them just 276 years younger than the court at Paso de la Amada. The more recent of the two courts was built atop the older one, and, combined, the facility was in use for around 175 years. The courts were made from modified bedrock and unmodified stones.
The surface of the Etlatongo site prior to excavation. (Image: Formative Etlatongo Project)
The Etlatongo courts were found in the mountainous region of Oaxaca on a fairly flat expanse of land near the confluence of two small rivers. In terms of their condition, the courts “are fairly damaged from both the actions of ancient people as well as more recent uses of that land,” explained Blomster in an email to Gizmodo. The site was excavated from 2015 to 2017 by the Formative Etlatongo Project (FEP).
Like other Mesoamerican ballcourts, the playing fields, or alleys, are long and narrow, measuring 46 to 52 metres (150 to 170 feet) long. The alley of Structure 1-2, the earlier of the two ballcourts, is 6 metres wide (20 feet) and “extremely level,” according to the paper. Structure 1-3 has an alley of similar width.
“One interesting feature is the architectural changes between them, with the older court having banquettes [like a long bench], and the younger court eliminating the banquettes and instead having steeper walls adjacent to the alley,” said Blomster.
Plan views and related cross-sections of Etlatongo’s two ballcourts. (Image: Formative Etlatongo Project)
Both courts are buttressed by tall mounds on either side, with Structure 1-3 being wider overall. The younger court’s eastern mound is around 17 meters (56 feet) from front to back, with the older court featuring mounds about half that size. The mounds “served as platforms that would have provided the primary space for viewership,” wrote the authors.
“We tried to be very careful and not expose more of the ballcourts than we needed to, as they are so fragile and already very damaged,” said Blomster. “We are very confident about the dimensions of the eastern mound, but we documented less of the western mound. The southern part of the courts are so damaged we will probably never know exactly the true length down to the last centimetre.”
In addition to these courts, the archaeologists also uncovered numerous ballplayer figurines made from clay. All figurines were broken, but they probably measured around 15 centimetres in height.
The new discovery suggests both lowland and highland societies “contributed to the evolution of the ballgame,” according to the new paper.
“Multiple regions and societies were involved in the development of the blueprint of the ballcourt used in the formal, pan-Mesoamerican ballgame,” Blomster told Gizmodo. “We find it significant that both the Etlatongo ballcourt and the one earlier lowland ballcourt, from Paso de la Amada, occur in the context of societies that are becoming socio-politically more complex. The ballcourt both reflects these changes and further instigated them.”
Writing in the paper, the authors put it this way:
The construction of an architectural ballcourt represents both more formalised rules for the game and more complex social and regional interactions. The first highland ballcourt emerged during... a time of increasing sociopolitical complexity and interregional interaction. We argue that ballcourts provided an important venue that promoted increasing differentiation of leaders and promoted interaction between polities of different regions.
Looking ahead, archaeologists are now going to have to explain the large 800-year gap that exists between the Etlatongo courts and those found later in time – a gap that extends from 1374 to 574 BCE.
“There should be other contemporaneous ballcourts,” said Blomster. “Or perhaps in some cases, especially at smaller sites, games simply weren’t played in courts.”
The new paper suggests there’s still much to learn about the Mesoamerican ballgame, both in terms of its origins and how it evolved in the region over time. But as the new discovery also makes clear, we’ve been enjoying sports for a very long time.
Featured image: Blomster and Salazar Chávez, 2020/Science Advances