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Olmecs

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Rebecca
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« Reply #15 on: March 19, 2007, 03:27:02 am »

I've heard of it, but, from my information, it was an Olmec ball court.  In fact, didn't the Olmecs invent the game?
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Rebecca
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« Reply #16 on: March 19, 2007, 03:29:19 am »

This is an old article (1992), but I'm farily certain that the information still applies:

THE MESOAMERICAN BALLGAME
 
Games have been part of human culture for thousands of years.  From ancient Egypt to China, Greece, Rome and early Europe, people have competed with each other on the field of sports.  However in these early civilizations most sports were based on individual tests of skill and strength.  Even the early Olympic tradition placed its emphasis on an individual's competence in sports.  It was in the Americas, particularly in prehispanic Mexico, that the focus of games became team sports, not personal prowress.
In Mesoamerica, long before the arrival of the Spanish, there was an amazing enthusiasm for team sports, an enthusiasm unequaled any other place until recent times.  This vying of one group against another in team competition is still a phemnomena of American life and modern games still carry on many traditions established over 3000  years ago in the New World.  The heritage of these ancient games still exists in the traditions and rituals of modern sports.  The actual concept of playing on a team, formal court/stadium settings, special rituals, standardized equipment, formal gear or uniforms, gambling, professional players, the creation of heroes and the use of a rubber ball were all part of the sporting world of long ago just as they are today.

 It is in the use of rubber balls that modern games are mostclearly linked to the Precolumbian past.  Rubber itself was a product of the Americas and unknown in Europe and Asia before the arrival of Columbus in 1492.  The bouncing rubber ball was at first viewed by the amazed Spanish invaders as magical, an instrument of the devil.  Cortes took teams of players and numbers of rubber balls back to Spain soon after the Aztec conquest in 1521.  There the Indian teams played for spectators at the royal court of Charles V.  Soon the superior elastic qualities of the New World ball became appreciated and rubber began to replace wood and leather in European games.
 

THE PRECOLUMBIAN GAME
Origins:
 The story of the first team sports ever played with a rubber ball begins about 1500 B.C. This occurs not in Europe nor in Asia but here in the New World on the Gulf Coast of Mexico.  Deep in the sweltering jungles, ballgames were played by the Olmec kings, rulers of Mesoamerica's first great civiliztion.
From there the ancient tradition of formal games, with competitive teams, bouncing rubber balls, gambling, ritual activities, trophys, heroes and ballcourt architecture spread throughout Mexico, into the American Southwest, on to the Caribbean islands and possibly up the Mississippii River drainage into North America. It was one of the major elements of ritual and secular life in the early civilizations of the New World.
 In Mexico, which was the heartland of the ancient ballgame tradition, well over 600 stone ballcourts have been found and many more undoubtedly exist still covered over by jungle or moderntowns.  This game known in Nahuatl (the language of the Aztecs) as Ullamalitzli was one of the most striking hallmarks of prehispanic Mesoamerica and every community of any size must have boasted at least one ballcourt.  Played by the nobility of the Precolumbian world, the game was truly a sport of kings.  Both a competitive contest and a ritual ceremony, the game held religious as well as secular significance for players and spectators.  Teams competed on a formal stone court, known in the Aztec period as a tlatchli. These courts averaged 120 by 30 feet, though some were small enough to contain only two players at a time and a few others were as large as a modern football field. On each side of a playing alley were two long parallel walls against which a rubber ball was resounded and bounced from team to team. Points were scored when opposing ball players missed a shot at the vertical hoops placed at the center point of the side walls, were unable to return the ball to the opposing team before it had bounced a second time, or allowed the ball to bounce outside the boundaries of the court. The ball itself was of solid rubber and weighed around 6 pounds; injuries or even death could occur from its impact on vital parts of the body. A number of ways of playing the game are known; one used a bat, another used a paddle or padded hands to hit the ball and still another allowed the ball to be kicked with the feet.  However, in the dominant and best known form of the game, the ball could only be struck with the hips, buttocks, knees,or elbows. It drew many spectators and almost always involved heavy gambling. According to Aztec records, nobility and commoners alike oftenstaked all they owned, land, crops, jewelry and even their wives and children on the outcome of the game.
 
 The sport was played by all major cultures of Mesoamerica.  The Olmecs, the Maya, the Zapotecs, Toltecs and Aztecs participated in the game and the rituals associated with it.  As far north as the American Southwest, an area strongly influenced by Mexican civilizations, prehistoric remains of rubber balls have been recovered from excavations.  In addition, over 200 oval shaped ball courts have been reported in an area ranging from the Mexican border to just south of Flagstaff, Arizona.

 At least two forms of this ancient sport still exist and are played in Mexico today. In the states of Sinoloa and Oaxaca the solid rubber balls are still made and teams avidly compete against each other in village streets and city plazas.  In northwestern Mexico, Sinoloa teams play a game called Ulama that is closly related to the game played by the Aztecs at the time of the Spanish conquest. In the southern highland valley of Oaxaca another game also related to the prehispanic sport is played with a solid rubber ball that is hit with a heavily padded leather glove studded with nailheads.

In North America the game of Lacross was the most important aboriginal sport of the Native peoples.  This major team sport, played originally with a leather ball and one or two  throwing raquets, may have had its ritual origin in Mesoamerica.  It became a popular religious and spectator event among northern Indian tribes long before the arrival of the European invaders.  It isdescribed by early explorers and ethnographers as being played by teams of anywhere from seven to 700 warriors on large open playing fields.  Like its counterpart in Mexico, the playing of the game was associated with rituals, religion, and gambling for high stakes.
 

THE SPREAD OF THE GAME:
 From its origins around 1500 B.C. in the jungles of Gulf Coast Mexico, the rubber ballgame was carried by Olmec merchants along trade routes into other parts of ancient Mesoamerica.  Into Western Mexico, the central highlands, including the valleys of Mexico and Oaxaca, on to the Maya area.  Long after the Olmec civilization had vanished the game continued as a hallmark of Precolumbian Mesoamerica and was played by all succeding prehispanic cultures.  In Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala as well as throughout Mexico itself, gleaming white ballcourts, painted with brillant colors were built in hundreds of ancient cities as centers of sport and ritual.  By A.D. 700 the game had been carried,into the American southwest where it was played on oval shaped adobe and stone courts by an expanding Hohokam culture.
Evidence for the game is present in all these regions. In the Olmec heartland great stone heads of ballplayers have been recovered from ancient sites.  Some are as large as 9' in height, others somewhat smaller, but all wear protective football stlye helmets and are thought to be depictions of Olmec kings.  In addition a number of stone statues depict men wearing thick ballgame yokes or belts. In the civilizations that followed the Olmec, stone objects associated with the ballgame continue to bemade and clay figurines wearing ballgame equipment are well known objects of ceramic art.  Their heavy protective belts, kneepads and gloves clearly designate them as ballplayers and they provide clear evidence for a 3000 year continuity of the ritual sport.

EQUIPMENT:
 During the playing of the Mesoamerican ballgame, athletes wore special equipment to protect them from injury and to help deflect and hit the ball.  Equipment needs varied somewhat over time but most commonly headresses or helmets protected the head, quilted cotton pads covered the elbows and knees and heavy belts or yokes, probably of leather or basketry, were worn around the waist.  These yokes, however, and special items known as Palmas, Hachas and Manoplas were also made in heavy stone and are clearly associated with the ancient ballgame.  They have been recovered from burials of ballplayers, and in the ruins of courts.  In addition they are depicted on figurines, painted vessels, and stone carvings.  It is not certain whether this bulky stone equipment was actually worn during the play of the game or whether it was made for ceremonial purposes; worn perhaps as contenders paraded into the court or for completion rituals.  The yokes, even though they may weigh as much as 50 lbs, fit easily, even confortably, around the hips of slender athletes and would have been extremely effective in returning the hard rubber ball.  Manoplas, or handstones, would have been useful in hitting the ball or protecting a participants hand as he fell to the floor of the court in play.  Palmas and hachas, however, seemto have have little purpose in the game.  The palmas, shown worn at the front of the yoke, are too fragile to have survived the rigorous play.  The hachas, which dangle from the belt or yoke, at first glance also seem useless adornments.  Many of them, however,  are in the shape of a human or skeletal head and may relate to an ancient tradition when the game was associated with a headhunting cult.  Members of such a cult might have hung from their belts the trophy heads taken in battle.  Hachas may reflect this symbolism and its ancient relationship with the ballgame.
BALLCOURTS:
The strongest evidence for the game and its importance to Mesoamerican peoples is, of course, the beautiful ballcourts. At first the game was probably played on open marked fields rather than in courts, but very soon in the history of the sport formal architecture made its appearence.  While there is some variation through time and from region to region, basically the form of courts remained the same over 3000 years.  Parallel masonery walls enclosed a long narrow playing alley which may or may not have end zones.  At times the walls were straight but could also be sloped and were often decorated with stone sculpture of birds, jaguars and skeletal heads, as well as carved stone friezes depicting post game rituals of human sacrifice.  After about A.D. 800 stone rings were added at the central point of both walls suggesting a change in the rules of the game during what is known as the Postclassic Period of Mesoamerica (900­1525 A.D.). Finally, with the arrival of Cortes in 1519, the game was recorded by Spanish soldiers and priests indocuments that survive today and give us written descriptions of the Precolumbian game.  However, during the Spanish colonial period in Mexico the ballgame, and what the Catholic church viewed as its pagan rituals, were prohibited, the splendid courts were torn down and the game almost forgotten.
STAKES OF THE GAME:
Athletes have always risked their lives, health and reputations on the outcome of games and spectators have also had major stakes in sports through betting and gambling on the results of contests.  This was as true in ancient Mesoamerica as it is today, only in the prehispanic period staking your life on the game was literally true.  At the end of the ritual competition the captain of the defeated team actually lost his head.  In illustrations from Precolumbian books such as the Codex Borgia and on carved stone friezes decorating the parallel walls of magnificent ballcourts at the sites of Chichen Itza and El Tajin, the decapitation of one team captain by the other, or by a priest, is clearly depicted. The traditional implement of sacrifice was an obsidian knife, the sharpest tool known in the Precolumbain world. It cleanly and quickly dispatched the losing hero and sent him on his way as a sacificial offering, or perhaps messenger, to the demanding gods.
While human sacrifice was an essential element of the Precolumbian ballgame and players in the great ceremonial courts at urban centers must have been well aware of the possibility of death with the obsidian blade, other significant stakes were alsoattached to the sport.  In spite of protective equipment, injuries from the heavy solid rubber ball were common and players were often carried severely hurt from the ballcourts to be attended by physcians.  But the dangers were apparently considered insignificant compared to the glory which was attained by the greatest players.  According to the Spanish chronicles, these professional athletes often became the companions and intimates of kings and were awarded honors and special privliges at court.  Most honored of all was the player who actually managed to send the ball through one of the stone rings placed at the center of each wall of the court.  Usually the game was won by the accumulation of points as the passing of the ball through the ring was so difficult that as soon as it happened the game was over and:

 The man who sent the ball through the stone ring was  surrounded  by all.  They honored him, sang songs of praise to  him, and joined him in dancing. He was given a very special  award of feathers or mantles and breechcloths, something very  highly prized.  But what he most prized was the honor involved: that was his great wealth. For he was honored as a man who had vanquished many and had won a battle.
    Fray Diego Duran, Book of the Gods and Rites and the Ancient calendar, p.315.  Translators:  Fernando Horcasitas and Doris Heyden, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman,1977.
Gambling was an essential part of the contest and players and spectators alike laid wagers on the outcome of the game. DiegoDuran (1977:p.318) descibes the disasters that addictive gambling by people of low status might bring:
 They ... gambled their homes, their fields, 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.
 The nobility, who never seemed to lack the wealth to pay their  gambling debts, played and watched the game more for recreational purposes.  According to Duran (p.318) it was important to have the backing of great wealth in order to take part in the sport. Rulers even played the game for kingdoms, as when Axayacatl, emperor of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, waged his yearly wealth against that of the Xihuitlemoc, the king of Xochimilco.
 The players themselves also gambled on the game.  In addition, at least during the Aztec period, the winning team could accumulate wealth through a tradition that, at the close of the contest, allowed them to run into the watching crowd and seize jewelry of gold and jade as well as rich clothing and accoutrements from the spectators.

RITES AND RITUALS:
 The Mesoamerican ballgame had its origin in the the cosmic view and religious beliefs of the prehispanic peoples.  In spite of changes over time into a more secular spectator sport, the game retained its ongoing religious significance for participants and audiences alike.  The meaning behind the game undoubtedly varied across time and space.  The most common interpretation sees theball and its movement in the court as the movement of heavenly bodies in the sky.  The game is viewed as a battle between the sun, and its life giving principle of light, against the moon and stars who represent the principle of darkness. The opposing forces of day and night, dark and light, good and evil, life and death are symbolically acted out on the ballcourt.
 Clearly associated with this view of the game is the cult of fertility, the enduring need of agricultural peoples for the productivity of the earth which depends on the lifegiving warmth and light of the sun. Human sacrifice by decapitation is a recurring theme associated with ballcourts and ballgame imagery. The streams of blood that spurt from the decapitated victim may be seen as fertilizing the earth or perhaps as an offering of sustenance to the sun in its battle against the forces of night.

In the Maya region this cosmic battle is seen in the creation myth of twin brothers who play a ballgame in the underwold against the gods of death and pestilence.  Their victory against the forces of darkness resulted in their ascension into the sky, one becoming the sun and the other the moon.  This legendary game of the hero twins may have been reenacted on the ballcourts of the Classic Maya period by Maya kings dressed as ballplayers.  In the final act of the game, the winners sacrificed their royal opponents, who had been taken captive in battle in preperation for the staging of the event, thus reinforcing the power of the victorious rulers. Among the Maya the court seems to have been viewed as the entrance to the underworld; the opening in the earth where the hero twins descendedto Xibalba to challenge the gods on the ballcourt.

Whatever the interpretation of the game and its changes over time, we know it was accompanied by elaborate rites and ritual performances.  Fasting and abstenence from sexual activity were required of ballplayers preceding the game and further preperation included incantations by priests and special prayers and offerings to the ballplaying equipment itself to help insure victory.  Musicians playing conchshell trumpets, flutes, whistles and drums paraded with elaborately costumed dancers.  Acrobats and magcians performed their tricks in the plazas and ritual dramas took place on the steps of the great pyramids, as kings and commoners gathered for the colorful celebration of the game and the blood sacrifice associated with it.

THE ANCIENT BALLGAME IN WEST MEXICO AND THE AMERICAN SOUTHWEST:
In Precolumbian West Mexico, the tradition of ballplayer figurines is as old, or older, than any other place in Mesoamerica.  A group of ballgame figures from the El Openo tombs near modern Guadalajara are dated at 800­1200 B.C.  These radio carbon dates place them firmly in the early Preclassic Period along with ballgame figurines from Xochipala in Guerrero, Tlatilco in the Valley of Mexico and early Olmec sites on the Gulf Coast of Mexico.  Archaeological excavation and survey in the highlands of Nayarit and Jalisco have uncovered many sites with recognizable ballcourts.  These begin about 600 B.C. and continue on through the Classic Period, ending around A.D. 700.  In addition ceramic figurines of ballplayers have been found in West Mexican burials from sites ofthe Shaft Tomb culture (300 B.C.­A.D.300).  Here and in the American Southwest the game may have had a special use as a device to resolve disputes ­ a substitute for warfare itself.
For over 500 years (A.D. 700­1250 A.D.) a Mesoamerican derived ballgame was also played in the Hohokam region of Arizona.  It probably reached the American southwest from west Mexico.  In the southwest, from the present border with Mexico, north to Flagstaff,  206 ballcourts have been identified at 166 sites. The courts are oval with slightly concave floors, not the I shape of Mesoamerican courts; however, with their smoothed surfaces and parallel walls they are functionally suitable for playing a form of the Mesoamerican ballgame.  Rubber balls have also been recovered at Arizona sites, further confirming the connection between the Hohokam  culture and Prehispanic Mexican civilizations to the south.  Most likely the idea for the game itself was carried, along trade routes established for the exchange of turquoise, copper, shell, macaw feathers, cotton and other valuable items. Small clay figurines of ballplayers, painted pottery and petroglyphs along with the ballcourts, confirm the presence of the Precolumbian game in the southwestern region of the United States.

MODERN GAMES
Recently have we begun to realize that remnants of the Precolumbian ballgame still exist in Mexico (Leyenard,1989).  At least two versions are played by modern indigenous peoples; one is centered in the Oaxaca Valley and the other in northwestern Mexico.
The Mixtec Ballgame
Today in the Mixtec region of Mexico, a ballgame derived from the prehispanic sport is still played.  The game originates in the highland valley of Oaxaca but is also played in various other areas where Zapotec and Mixtec emmigrants from Oaxaca have settled, such as Mexico City and San Diego, California.  The game appears to be a throwback to an ancient Mesoamerican handball game.  It is played on a court about 300 feet long by 30 feet wide, marked out on a field with lines. The two open ends of the court are called the serving and return areas; here is placed a flat stone on which the ball is bounced at the serve.  A solid rubber ball is used in play and is hit with a glove or gauntlet which may weigh up to 14 lbs. The specially made leather glove is padded on the palm with layers of hide and reinforced on the outer surface with roundheaded rivets to protect the part of the hand most directly in contact with the heavy rubber ball.  Temas are composed of five players who once the ball has been served must continue to return it either before it touches or the ground or after it has bounced only once.  Points are scored when one team manages to get the ball out of reach of the opposition, so that it bounces out of bounds on the side or end zones and cannot be returned.
While a handball game was never described by the Spanish, we know such a game was played during the Precolumbian period.  Many figurines hold balls in their hands, codicies (prehispanic books) depict handball games and wall murals at Teotihuacan, the greatest of all ancient sites, show such a game being played.

ULAMA
 In the modern state of Sinoloa, located in northwestern Mexico, a current version of the ancient game of Ullamalitzli is still played.  Its name, Ulama, is even derived from the Precolumbian Aztec name of 500 years ago (ullamalitzli) and solid rubber balls are still carefully made to be used by the competing teams. Little of the former splendor of the Precolumbian game survives today.  The colorful costumes, religious ritual and elaborate stone courts have vanished with time but the genetic relationship is clear.  When a game is to be played a court is marked off with lines in an open field. This playing field, usually about 200 ft. by 12 ft. is carefully smoothed and leveled to avoid erratic bounces of the ball. Two forms of the game are played; one known as arm Ulama and the other as hip Ulama.  As the names indicate, one is played by returning the ball with the hip or buttocks, as is recorded for the Aztecs; the other by hitting the ball with a wraped forearm.  Arm and knee protectors are used in the arm game. In hip ulama players wear a triangular deerskin tied around the waist and, as a hip guard, a heavy leather belt which protects the lower abdomen from the impact of the ball and provides protection when the player swoops against the ground to lift the ball with his hip for a return.  Most commonly there are three players on arm ulama teams and five on hip ulama teams.  The players line up in a straight line on their own half of the court, between the center dividing line (the analco) and the baseline (the chivo).  At each of these lines an umpire is stationed. The ballmay be hit either high (arriba) or low (abajo) with hip or forearm depending on the game, but must not be touched with any other part of the body, including hands and feet.  The umpire/judge at the center line rolls or throws the ball into the court to begin play.
 The first team to get 8 points (rayas) is the winner.   Points are scored by body faults (recieving or hitting the ball with the wrong part of the body), and service and rally faults (if the ball goes beyond the baseline , does not cross the center line, or bounces more than once).  The scoring, however, is extremely complicated.  Not only do points accumulate but, based on what combinations of points occur and when, scores may go down as well as up, often making for a very long game.

CONCLUSION
 For over 3000 years, from the Olmecs to the Maya, Toltecs and Aztecs, the rubber ballgame was truly a sport of kings and one of the most striking hallmarks of precolumbian Mesoamerica.  In Mexico today the heritage of this prehispanic tradition lingers on in the game of Ulama and in the Mixtec handball game.  However, not only in Mexico but throughout the modern world, we are all heirs of the Precolumbian past as we participate in team sports played with bouncing rubber balls.


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EQUIPMENT DEFINITIONS:
YOKES:  A protective yoke or belt in a U shape worn around the hips or waist.  It is found made of basalt, either plain or elaborately carved.  Forms in leather, cotton or basketry may have actually been worn by players during the game.

HACHAS:  Stone ax shaped objects, at times in the shape of a head.  Worn attached to the yoke and often found in burials.

PALMAS:  Palmleaf­shaped stone objects associated with the ballgame.  Often shown attached to the yokes.

MANOPLAS:  Handstones with handles, probably used to hit the ball or protect the hand.

GLOVES: worn by players for protection.  Depicted on figurines, pottery and stone carvings.

MAXTLATL: A loincloth worn around the waist of male players.

KNEE PROTECTORS: Padding worn to protect the knee against falls onthe stone courts or blows of the ball.

ARM WRAPPINGS: Wrapped cotton strips worn to protect the arm against falls or blows from the ball.

HELMETS: Headgear worn to protect the head from the heavy ball.

DEFLECTORS:  A yoke­like protector, part of the costume worn by Maya ballplayers. Extends from just below the armpits to hip level. Probably made of quilted cotton or basketry . Depicted on Maya
figurines, pottery and stone.

Jane Stevenson Day, PhD
Chief Curator Denver Museum of Natural History http://linux1.north.denver.k12.co.us/~gmoreno/gmoreno/Mesoamerican_Ballgame.html
 

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