A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Columbus was so impressed by the ballgame he saw played on Hispaniola that he took some of the balls back to show the folks in Spain. Cortés did him one better, taking back an entire team of ballplayers. Played throughout most of Central America and from the American Southwest to the Caribbean, the ballgame is the subject of The Sport of Life and Death: The MesoAmerican Ballgame (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2001; 280 pp., $50.00). A collection of essays edited by E. Michael Whittington of the Mint Museum of Art, the book covers everything from rubber ball production to ballcourt architecture.
Carbon dated to ca. 1600 B.C., 12 rubber balls from El Manatí, near Veracruz, are the earliest evidence for the ballgame. It was still played in recent decades in the northwestern Mexican state of Sinaloa. In a nighttime version in Michoacán state, the ball is set on fire and batted about with fieldhockey-like sticks
The Maya creation myth, the Popul Vuh, is a key to the game's meaning. In it, the brothers Hun Hunahpu and Vucub Hunahpu were playing the ballgame noisily, disturbing the Lords of the Dead in the Underworld, who challenged them to a match. Defeated, the brothers were decapitated and buried in the ballcourt. But the Hero Twins, the sons of Hun Hunahpu, won a return match and resurrected their uncle and father, who was also the Maize God. In real life, decapitation of defeated players mirrored the harvesting of maize, their blood watering the earth. Maya kings playing against captive warriors re-enacted the victory of the Hero Twins. Defeated in war, the captive was given the opportunity for honorable sacrifice at game's end. Scenes of losing players being decapitated are known from sites like Chichén Itzá, El Tajín, and El Aparicio. At some sites skull racks were conveniently built near the ballcourts for display of the heads.
While most sites had only one court, Chichén Itzá had 13, El Tajín 18, and Cantona 24. Why some sites had dual courts or multiplexes is debated. Possibly different courts were used for different versions of the game. Alternatively, multiple ballcourts could indicate a site was ruled by a political confederacy as opposed to a single dynasty. Olmec figurines (as early as 1500 B.C.) and later ones depicting women ballplayers raise another question: Were there women's teams or are these women attired for ceremonies enacted on the courts? By the Aztec period (A.D. 1400), the ballgame had become largely secular. It was wildly popular--one province sent 16,000 rubber balls twice yearly as tribute to the Aztec capital--and a Spanish chronicler recorded problem gambling associated with it: They...gambled their homes, their corn granaries, their maguey plants. They sold their children in order to bet and even staked themselves and became slaves to be sacrificed later if they were not ransomed.
There is overlap from one essay to another, and in some cases authors disagree, especially concerning the game's symbolic aspects. Still, The Sport of Life and Death gives a solid understanding of the game's place in Mesoamerican culture highlights interpretive issues. It also includes a catalogue of ballgame artifacts now on display in the Mint Museum.