Mexico Picks Up 3,000-Year-Old Ballgame

WORLD

The finals of a revived 3,000-year-old ball game have been played in the Mexican city of Teotihuacan. (BBC)

Ballgames are a great introduction to ethnoarchaeology and anthropology—use our fun study guide for some help!

Teachers, scroll down for a quick list of key resources in our Teachers Toolkit.

As its name indicates, variations of the Mesoamerican ballgame were played throughout what is now central and southern Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean in the pre-contact era.
Illustration by Louis S. Glanzman, National Geographic

Discussion Ideas
Take a look at the first question in the “Questions” tab in our study guide on ethnoarchaeology and sports. It is tailored for study of the Mesoamerican ballgame.

 

Players—note those uniforms, including body paint—watch a ball approach a goal in a game of pok-ta-pok. Nothing but stone.
Photograph by Sputnik, courtesy Wikimedia. CC-BY-SA-2.5

 

  • What are some similarities shared by basketball and Mesoamerican ballgames that ethnoarchaeologists and anthropologists may want to investigate to better understand ancient Mesoamerican culture? Take a look at the first question in our study guide, this great article, or this interactive game for some help.
    • Ballgame
      • Both games involve a rubber ball.
        • What might this tell us about the resources and economy of the region?
      • The goal of both games is to keep the ball in play and score goals through a hoop.
        • What other skills might this sort of athleticism benefit?
      • In both games, keeping the ball in play involves allowing the ball as little contact with the ground as possible.
    • Ball Courts
      • Both games are played on a rectangular court.
        • What might this tell us about the geography of the region?
      • Both sets of ball courts are used for a wide variety of public functions, such as concerts, festivals, political meetings, and other types of sports.
        • What might this tell us about the culture and public life of the society?
    • Athletes
      • Both games involve two teams.
      • Both games frequently result in injury to players.
        • What might this tell us about the value of the game? How do you think both cultures treated injured athletes?
      • Both games feature uniforms and protective gear, such as masks and knee guards.
        • What materials do you think ancient Mesoamericans might have used for protective gear?

 

  • What are some differences between basketball and Mesoamerican ballgames that ethnoarchaeologists and anthropologists may want to investigate to better understand ancient Mesoamerican culture? Take a look at the first question in our study guide, this great article, or this interactive game for some help.
    • Ballgame
      • Mesoamerican and pok-ta-pok athletes usually kept the ball in play using their hips, shoulders, elbows, and torsos, while basketball players use their hands.
      • The Mesoamerican ball was solid rubber, weighing as much as 4 kilograms (9 pounds), while basketballs weigh only 624 grams (22 ounces).
        • This is a major difference! How do you think it changed the game? Think about the pace of play, as well as the agility and muscles required to keep the ball in play and get it through the hoop.
      • The Mesoamerican hoop (a late addition to the game) was vertical, while basketball hoops are horizontal.
    • Ball Courts
      • Some ancient ball courts were ⊥-shaped, with smaller rectangular end zones. All NBA courts are rectangular.
      • All ancient ball courts were outside, while all NBA courts are indoor.
        • How might this have impacted play and the size of the crowds?
      • Mesoamerican ball courts varied wildly in size, from the enormous court at Chichen Itza (96.5 meters long by 30 meters wide; 316 feet long by 98 feet wide) to the smaller court at Tikal (16 meters by 5 meters; 52 feet by 16 feet). NBA courts are generally smaller: 29 meters (94 feet) by 15 meters (50 feet).
        • Why do you think the size of ball courts differed so much in the ancient world?
    • Athletes
      • The number of people on a team varies. Mesoamerican teams and most pok-ta-pok teams consisted of between two and four players on court. The modern Mesoamerican ballgame in the BBC article features teams of seven players on court. NBA teams have five players on court.
        • How long do you think ancient games would have lasted? Think about the size of the court, the size of the ball, and the number of people on a team.
      • The solid, heavy ball left ancient athletes with bruises so severe they had to be lanced open, according to Spanish explorers. The NBA injury list is extensive, but rarely involve injuries quite that severe.
      • Players on ancient Mesoamerican teams could lose their life. Modern players just lose the game.

Decapitation was associated with later iterations of the Mesoamerican ballgame. This stele of a decapitated ballplayer—those snakes are fountains of blood—is from the Veracruz culture.
Photograph by Maurice Marcellin, courtesy Wikimedia. Public domain

 

  • Try playing pok-ta-pok! (No decapitation allowed.) Use a volleyball or rubber ball. (No nine-pound weights allowed.) Try to keep the ball in play using your head, thighs, elbows, and torso—shoulders hips, belly, butt! What can you learn from this sort of experimental archaeology?
    • What muscles are you using? What body types might excel at pok-ta-pok? Use our study guide for some help.
    • How is the coordination required in pok-ta-pok different than coordination used to maneuver the ball in basketball or soccer?
    • What protective clothing or gear might help you avoid injury?
      • Do you think the elbow pads and feather headdresses worn by ancient players were decorative, practical, or both? (Remember, those balls were pounds-thick and could easily break bones.)
    • Who do you think played pok-ta-pok in ancient Mesoamerica?
      • Men, women, or both?
      • Children or adults?
      • Do you think it was an elite sport available to a few, or do you think there were “pickup” games in random jungle clearings? Why?

 

TEACHERS TOOLKIT

BBC: Mexico revives 3,000-year-old ancient ball game

Nat Geo: Bull-Leaping: Modern sport hints at an ancient tradition study guide

Mint Museum: The MesoAmerican Ballgame game (Flash-based, worth the trouble!)

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