Researchers unearth 3,400-year-old ball fields in Mexico
Of all the inventions and infrastructure for which ancient Mesoamerican societies are famous, one striking relic appears again and again. Ball fields – playing field alleys defined by mounds running the length of the field – emerge from Aztec and Mayan ruins and art. Archaeologists have even recovered figurines of men playing game in traditional costume of an Olmec urban center dating from 1150 BC.
Now there is a site on the map which is even older than that of the Olmecs. Archaeologists have found a new Mesoamerican ball court in a field in what is now Oaxaca, Mexico, likely built between around 1400 and 1300 BC. Described this week in Scientists progress, the tribunal dates from a time and place that researchers believed to be less culturally developed at that time, says Victor Salazar Chávez, co-author of the article and archaeologist at George Washington University.
The ball game was not just for fun, it also had religious and political uses. Seeing that settlements previously considered less sophisticated may have created the tribunal, says Salazar Chávez, carries significant cultural weight. “These are innovative aspects and traits that are later considered the epitome,” he says.
Give the outsider a chance
Although archaeologists have excavated ball fields throughout the region, one geographic area appeared to be running out of sites for a specific period of time. The highlands – parts of the Americas at higher elevations, according to Salazar Chávez – have not revealed much infrastructure dating from between 1500 and 1000 BC.
Other classical ancient Mesoamerican features, like the temple pyramid, began to form around this time. The researchers speculated that because the highlands had little to show for the time, the people there had a cultural progression slower than those who live in the plains. Only the inhabitants of low-lying and often coastal regions seemed to harbor a complex social hearth. Those at higher elevations were seen as social imitators, says Salazar Chávez.
This perception led Jeffrey Blomster, co-author of the recent study and archaeologist at George Washington University, to begin excavating mountainous areas in the 1990s. If others did not pay so much attention to this expanse of earth, he thought he could. Salazar Chávez joined him in Oaxaca in 2015.
At first, the team did not know what they were searching, says Salazar Chávez. It took a year of digging to realize that they discovered two ball fields, one on top of the other. The finds had the classic form of a field – a strip of playing area, flanked by raised seating trays. Apart from these, mounds rose to encompass the entire rectangular configuration.
These features revealed the site, but other remains found on the fields made it clear that they had discovered a cultural hotspot.. Whistles made to look like men in sashes and loincloths worn during play scattered the terrain, along with animal bones, seashells and other ceremonial signs.
(Credit: Etlatongo training project)
An ancient space, today
Once the land was discovered, Salazar Chávez remembers how strange it was to occupy a space that the ancient Mesoamericans had built. “We’re here again after 3,000 years,” he recalls thinking.
The team plans to thoroughly examine the artifacts removed from the ground and keep residents informed of the work. For Salazar Chávez, the work is fascinating, but he also enjoys spending time with the locals who now live near the site.
“What motivates me the most is the region,” he says. “I’m in love with Oaxaca, so being there and getting to know the people of the town where the site is located, working with them, building relationships – it’s a great motivation for archaeologists to go back to the same places. . “