Scholars agree the Maya were the most advanced of all ancient Mesoamerican cultures. They originated in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula about 2600 B.C. Their vast empire rose to prominence by 250 A.D. and expanded throughout countries known today as Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. They built numerous, elaborate pyramid cities in dense tropical jungles without metal tools. Some estimated populations were greater than 100,000 citizens.
They had great understanding of Astronomy and were careful observers of the sun, moon, and planets. The Maya’s solar and lunar calendars are more accurate than the calendar we use today.
The Maya are credited with vast Mathematical knowledge, including the abstract concept of “zero”. Their writing system was the most developed and complex in the Americas. The Maya’s hierarchical government ruled by Kings and Nobles, was highly structured with complex social and political orders.
By 900 A.D., mysteriously, the Maya began to abandon their great cities and temples. Only a few peripheral Mayan centers remained at the time of the Spanish Conquest in the early 16th Century.
MAYAN BALL GAME
Originating in Mesoamerica over 3,500 years ago, the Olmec, Aztec, Toltec, and Maya all used rubber balls to play what is considered the first team sport in history. The Mayan Ball Game appears in various myths, sometimes as a struggle between day and night deities, or battles between the gods in the sky and the lords of the underworld. The ball symbolized the sun, moon, or stars, and the rings signified sunrise and sunset, or equinoxes. Much time and energy was spent building ball courts. Every major Mayan city had at least one. Courts were considered to be portals to the Maya underworld and were built in low-lying areas or at the foot of great vertical constructions. Many scholars believe that the ancient Maya reenacted the death and resurrection myth through the ball game. It was seen as an underworld contest between the gods of life and fertility, and the gods of death.
Ball games were exciting sporting competitions that most of the community attended, and also served as complex religious rituals. Drummers provided musical accompaniment or signaled to the players, called “Ah Pitzlaw”, during the game. Archeologists believe music was part of the game from the discovery of miniature instrument offerings buried at ancient ball courts.
The outcome of the game directly affected the lives of both players and spectators. Winners were showered with praise, riches, and the gratitude of the crowd. The Maya may have used the ball game to settle disputes with other centers, rather than waging war with their enemies. Some Mayan art depicts the sacrifice of ball players. However, this practice was strictly limited to certain ceremonial games and was not routine practice. Many question the highly advanced Maya’s reliance on blood sacrifice and prefer to interpret the scenes depicted in Mayan art symbolically. For example, the revered ball player’s “sacrifice” is not literal, but represents the death of his former self. The subsequent “rebirth” results in an enlightened and divine individual, commonly symbolized by serpents.
The Mayan Ball Game was a dramatic and dangerous game, and the court was center stage. Courts were shaped like a capital letter “I”, built of brightly painted cut stone, and symbolized each city’s wealth and power. Larger centers boasted multiple, elaborate ball courts. These ancient athletic arenas allowed large crowds to attend the game.
The “I” shaped court with the long playing field and two end zones represented life energy and movement, like the serpent frequently depicted in Mayan art. The rings were markers for the game and were often placed high above slanted court walls. In addition to sunrise, sunset, and equinoxes, the rings also symbolized the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. Games were believed to continue for several days and scoring was extremely difficult.
The ancient Maya loved a good show. Ball players entered the court dressed in the finest jewelry, exotic animal skins, and colorful feathered headdresses. After entrance rituals and blessings, players removed their elaborate ceremonial attire and played the game wearing sparce protective gear that allowed for quick movement.
“Yuguitos”, or “little yokes” are one of the earliest pieces ball game equipment worn and were likely used to hit the ball, protecting ball player’s wrists, knees, or shins. A larger “yoke” was made either of fabric, woven fiber strips, or leather and was worn around the waist to protect the player’s midsection and deflect the ball. Ball players also wore elaborately carved stone “hachas” that were notched and worn on their “yokes”. These stone accessories looked like axes and were often beautifully carved animal figures. Stone carved yokes and “hachas” were worn during ceremonies before or after the game, but were not used for playing the sport.
The Mesoamericans invented the ball game, rather than other advanced civilizations such as the Romans or Egyptians, because of their discovery of rubber from their native rubber tree. Bouncy rubber balls used in the game varied in size from about 4” – 8” in diameter and were heavy. Some weighed as much as 8 – 9 lbs. While most balls were solid rubber, some were “hollow” with a human skull at the core concealed by layers of rubber strips. These “hollow balls” were lighter and bounced higher than solid rubber balls. Special ceremonial balls called “ultelolotli”, often containing a long feather inserted into the core of the sacred ball, were presented as offerings to the gods by priests in religious rituals.