Quirks & Quarks

Play ball! Researchers find ancient ballcourt in Mexico's highlands

3,400-year-old ballcourt is a real game changer for the history of the Mesoamerican ball game

3,400-year-old ballcourt is a real game changer for the history of the Mesoamerican ball game

Uriel Ordaz plays the ballgame known as "Ulama" in Nahuatl indigenous language. The sport recently experienced a resurgence in Mexico City after 500 years. (Omar Torres / AFP via Getty Images)
Listen7:09

Researchers have unearthed a 3400 year old ballcourt in the mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico. The discovery challenges previous theories as to when sport leagues began in ancient Mesoamerica.

The Mesoamerican ballgame is an important historical tradition in the region made up of what is now Guatemala, Belize, western Honduras, El Salvador and most of Mexico. The game had an important political and ritual role in the ancient societies.

Ballcourts themselves aren't rare — over 2300 ancient ballcourts have been unearthed over the years. However, this discovery is special both because of how old it is, and where it is. 

The surface of Mound 1-1 at Etlatongo before excavations began in 2015. Deep below the surface, the project found the ballcourts. Note the old threshing floor on the surface, no longer in use, from the time when these lands belonged to an hacienda. (Formative Etlatongo Project)

Most ballcourts date to the Maya and the Aztec people about 100 BC. The oldest ballcourt ever found was 1,650 BC, but it was in the lowlands of Mexico near the water.

Researchers had always assumed that the ballgame originated near the water because the balls they used were made out of rubber which was produced in that region. However, this new discovery of two highland ballcourts, hundreds of kilometers away, from as early as 1,374 BC suggests that this was far more widespread than earlier assumed.

Jeffrey Blomster, an associate professor of anthropology from George Washington University, told Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald the ballcourt is made up of a long, narrow alley, surrounded by two mounds.

One of numerous ballplayer figurines found at the site of the ancient ballcourt. Front view shows costume elements, while profile view illustrates broken tripod support at the bottom and a whistle chamber above it. (J. Blomster / George Washington University)

The ballgame that Blomster and his colleague believe was played there is called Ulama, and featured athletes using their hips to bounce balls off the mounds down the alley. 

Inside the ballcourt, the team also found evidence of feasting and celebration. They dug up an "incredible" amount of broken pots, vessels and food remains like animal bones, as well as ceramic figurines showing the athletes. 

Written and produced by Amanda Buckiewicz

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