One Serious Ball Game

Popular throughout Mexico, Central America, and northern South America from at least 1200 B.C. through the arrival of the Spanish in the sixteenth century was a ball game in which players scored points by hitting a solid rubber ball past a marker. In cultures such as the Classic Maya (A.D. 250-900), the game was a formal ritual with cosmological significance involving death and human sacrifice. The stone ball court represented the cosmos, the rubber ball the sun.

Played on a long rectangular court with a heavy, solid rubber ball.  The players could use their elbows, hips, shoulders or knees, but not their hands. The heavily padded players would attempt to get the ball through a stone circle mounted 25 feet above the court, perpendicular to the floor. The playing court was approximately the size of a contemporary football field. Captives in war were required to play the game, with the losers becoming sacrifices.

Ball game 200 BC - AD 500 Nayarit Mex Worcester Art Mus 1947.25
Ball game from Nayarit, Mexico ca. 200 BC – AD 500 Credit: Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, Massachusetts
Ballgame spectators Mexico Narayit Inside tomb ca. 100 BCE - 250 CE Yale Univ Art Gallery ART326977
Ballgame with spectators, Narayit, Mexico ca. 100 BCE – 250 CE. Credit: Yale University Art Gallery/Art Resource, NY

By engaging in the ball game rituals and forcing weakened prisoners to play to the death, rulers reconfirmed their own prominent role among their people.

These sculptures from Nayarit in western Mexico were part of an artistic tradition of ceramic figures and clay scenes that were placed in deep shaft tombs as funerary offerings. The lively, crude rendition suggests simply a sporting event rather than a formal ritual with serious consequences.

Mexico Ball Game Player Mayan Culture 200-800 AD Natl Anthropological Mus AA361113
Ball Game Player, Mayan Culture 200-800 AD Credit: National Anthropological Museum, Mexico/Art Resource, NY
Nayarit Ball Player Minneapolis Museum of Art 103155
Seated Nayarit Ball Player. Credit: Minneapolis Museum of Art
Mexican Ball Player 378px-Ameca_style_figurine_from_Jalisco_(Zeetz_Jones)
Mexican Ball Player figure from Jalisco. Photo Credit: Jeetz Jones

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