Ancient ball court highlights game made famous by the Aztecs

An approximately 3,400-year-old ball court in the mountains of southern Mexico has provided surprising information about a game that later played a large role in Mayan and Aztec societies.

Excavations at a site called Etlatongo have revealed the old ball field, the second oldest found to date. The finding shows that at a time when societies in Mexico and Central America were becoming increasingly large and politically complex, population centers in the mountains contributed to the design of ball fields, and possibly to the first rules of the game, report researchers on March 13 in Scientists progress.

So far, most of the evidence indicated that coastal settlements in the southern Gulf and Pacific lowlands of Mexico were the developers of a ball game that was assuming ritual and political importance throughout the region.

“Several regions and societies were involved in developing a plan for the ball field used in a formal ball game across Mesoamerica,” says archaeologist anthropologist Jeffrey Blomster of George Washington University at Washington, DC Mesoamerica was an ancient cultural region stretching from central Mexico through much of Central America.

More than 2,300 probable ball fields have been found at Mesoamerican sites. Many are from centers that date from around 1,800 to 1,100 years ago during the Classical Period of the Mayan Empire, as well as from the Aztec Empire, which lasted around 675 to 500 years ago.

Excavations in Etlatongo, southern Mexico, have probed beneath the surface remains of a Spanish hacienda’s threshing floor (shown) to reveal two ancient ball fields, built on top of each other.Etlatongo training project

“The discovery of a formal ball field [at Etlatongo] … Shows that some of Mexico’s early villages and highland towns played 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 witnessed politically tense competitions between teams from rival kingdoms, as well as matches punctuated by human sacrifice.

Versions of the Mesoamerican ball game are still being played in Mexico, adds Carballo, who was not involved in the new study. “It could be the oldest and oldest team ball game in the world,” he says.

Blomster and study co-author Victor Salazar Chávez, also from George Washington University, expected to find public structures, not ball fields, when they started digging an elevated open area in Etlatongo in 2015. But the work that continued until 2017 uncovered two ball fields, consisting of one later built on an older one.

Radiocarbon dating of scorched pieces of wood recovered from the sediment places the age of the ancient ball-playing field at around 1374 BC.

The stone-covered walls of the former Etlatongo ball court, the adjacent stone-covered benches that run along the bases of the walls and the playing area cover between 1,150 and 1,300 square meters. The people of Etlatongo built a second larger ball field compared to the first around 1200 BC, scientists say. The rules and nuances of how the ball game was played then and before are unknown.

The two ball fields were used over a period of approximately 175 years. Between 1174 BC and 1102 BC, a ceremony took place in which the second ball field was burned and put out of use, Blomster says. The unearthed remains of this event included bones of non-human animals, charred plant remains, scattered human bones, and pieces of at least 14 ceramic ball player figures.

These figurines included Olmec-style clothing, such as thick sashes above a loincloth and sometimes a chest plate. Over 3,000-year-old art from the Olmec, a regionally influential Gulf Coast company, shows players bouncing balls off their hips against the walls of a ball field, but no field has been definitively identified on the Olmec sites (NS: 04/25/2013). The oldest known ball court dates back to about 3,650 years ago at a non-Olmec site on the Pacific coast called Paso de la Amada.

While the Olmecs may have influenced the way ball players were represented in Etlatongo, the ball fields originate from outside the Gulf Coast, Blomster suspects.

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