An ancient ball court sheds light on a game made famous by the Aztecs

A mountain site in Mexico suggests an ancient ball game didn’t originate in coastal lowlands

Partial ballplayer figurines such as this (shown from the front and side) were unearthed at a mountain site in southern Mexico that also contained a ball court from around 3,400 years ago.

J. Blomster and V. Salazar Chávez/Science Advances 2020

A roughly 3,400-year-old ball court in the mountains of southern Mexico has scored surprising insights into a game that later played a big role in Maya and Aztec societies.

Excavations at a site called Etlatongo revealed the ancient ball court — the second oldest found to date. The discovery shows that, at a time when societies in Mexico and Central America were growing larger and more politically complex, population centers in the mountains contributed to ball court design, and possibly to early rules of the game, researchers report March 13 in Science Advances.

Until now, most evidence pointed to coastal settlements in southern Mexico’s Gulf and Pacific lowlands as the developers of a ball game that assumed ritual and political importance throughout the region.

“Multiple regions and societies were involved in developing a blueprint for the ball court used in a formal ball game across Mesoamerica,” says anthropological archaeologist Jeffrey Blomster of George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Mesoamerica was an ancient cultural region running from central Mexico through much of Central America.

More than 2,300 probable ball courts have been found at Mesoamerican sites. Many come from centers that date to between around 1,800 and 1,100 years ago during the Classic Period of the Maya empire, as well as from the Aztec empire, which lasted from about 675 to 500 years ago. 

Excavations at Etlatongo in southern Mexico probed beneath surface remains of a Spanish hacienda’s threshing floor (shown) to reveal two ancient ball courts, built atop each other.Formative Etlatongo Project

“The discovery of a formal ball court [at Etlatongo] … shows that some of the earliest villages and towns in highland Mexico were playing a game comparable to the most prestigious version of the sport known as ullamaliztli some three millennia later by the Aztecs,” says Boston University archaeologist David Carballo. Crowds of spectators at Aztec ball games sometimes watched politically tense contests between teams from rival kingdoms, as well as games punctuated by human sacrifices.

Versions of the Mesoamerican ball game are still played in Mexico, adds Carballo, who did not participate in the new study. “This could be the oldest and longest-lived team ball game in the world,” he says.

Blomster and study coauthor Victor Salazar Chávez, also of George Washington University, expected to find public structures, not ball courts, when they began excavating a raised, open area at Etlatongo in 2015. But work continuing through 2017 uncovered two ball courts, consisting of a later one built over an earlier one.

Radiocarbon dating of burned wood bits recovered from sediment placed the age of the older ball court at approximately 1374 B.C. That estimate pushes the appearance of ball courts in the Mexican highlands back by about 800 years.

The older Etlatongo ball court’s stone-covered walls, adjoining stone-covered benches running along the walls’ bases and playing space cover between 1,150 and 1,300 square meters. Etlatongo residents built a second, larger ball court over the first one around 1200 B.C., the scientists say. Rules and nuances of how the ball game was played at that time and earlier are unknown.

Both ball courts were used over a period of about 175 years. Between 1174 B.C. and 1102 B.C., a ceremony was held in which the second ball court was burned and taken out of use, Blomster says. Excavated remnants of that event included nonhuman animal bones, charred plant remains, scattered human bones and pieces of at least 14 ceramic ballplayer figurines.

Those figurines included Olmec-style attire, such as thick belts above a loincloth and sometimes a chest plate. More than 3,000-year-old art from the Olmec, a regionally influential Gulf coast society, shows players bouncing balls off their hips against a ball court’s walls, but no courts have been definitively identified at Olmec sites (SN: 4/25/13). The oldest known ball court dates to about 3,650 years ago at a non-Olmec, Pacific coast site called Paso de la Amada.

While the Olmec may have influenced how ballplayers were portrayed at Etlatongo, ball courts originated outside the Gulf coast, Blomster suspects.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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