Millennia ago, the Steinplatz would have been home to teams of players wearing belts and loincloth and hitting a hard rubber ball with their hips at goals at both ends of the square. The ball game, which recreated a creation story recorded in the religious text of the Maya, Popul Vuh, was an integral part of political, religious and social life for the Maya and the Aztecs as well as for the Olmecs before them. But archaeologists don't yet know much about where people first played the game or how it became a cultural phenomenon that spread throughout the region that now includes Guatemala, Belize, Mexico, Honduras, and El Salvador.
Layers of ball fields
The ball court – an alley about 50 meters long with a stone floor, bordered by steep stone walls and mounds of earth – once occupied a place of honor in the heart of the ancient city. But sometime between 1174 and 1102 BC The inhabitants of Etlatongo dismantled parts of the courtyard and ritually "ended" his life. This ceremony left burned pieces of plants mixed with broken Olmec-style ceramics, animal bones, shells, and some human bones (which may or may not have come from a later cemetery) scattered on the carved ground of the courtyard and on top of the earthen hills that extended the length of its sides.
But under this 12th century BC ball court There was another, even older one from 1374 BC. That was about the time (as far as archaeologists can see from the evidence available) that the formal version of the game – which was played on elaborate stone squares for masses of wealthy, high-ranking spectators in large urban centers – was still being developed. Archaeologists Jeffrey Blomster and Victor Salazar were surprised to find such an old ball court in the mountainous highlands of Mexico, rather than in the Olmec-dominated tropical lowlands, where archaeologists thought the game had started.
The oldest known Mesoamerican ball court from 1650 BC Chr. With a soil made of compacted earth instead of stone is located in Paso de la Amada in Chiapas on the Pacific coast of Mexico northwest of Guatemala. So far it looked as if people had only started building formal stone ball pitches in the Mexican highlands almost a thousand years later. By then, the game had been fully developed and exported across Mesoamerica – it was widely accepted.
Enlarge /. These diagrams show the plan and the cross sections of both ball fields in Etlatongo.
Formative Etlatongo project
Who invented the ball game?
This ball court challenges this assumption. Due to its presence, the game was already in 1374 BC. Chr. Important enough for the people of the highlands to occupy a prominent place in the city and to justify the investment of resources that were necessary for the construction of a stone square. And that suggests that the people of the highlands may also have played a role in developing their rules and designing the court. Blomster and Salazar suggested that ideas about the game be shared between the communities until it eventually merged into something that would have been recognized from one end of Mesoamerica to the other.
A modern replica of the Mayan ball game.
The find also suggests that ball game was already at the center of trade and interaction between regions. The usual equipment for the game was a hard rubber ball, and rubber trees from Castilla elastica grow in the coastal regions of the lowlands. It is for this reason that Olmec archaeologists have had the honor of inventing the game. But if the game was an important part of Etlatongo's cultural life 3,400 years ago, then there must have been trade in rubber – or more likely rubber balls. And the connections between the communities were not just commercial. The game itself would have connected cities far away and shaped their political life.
When the Etlatongo courtyard was built, Mesoamerican society became more and more complex and the power concentrated on some important centers. Building stone ball courts and running important ball games would have united the communities, but these things would also have given emerging political leaders the opportunity to demonstrate their wealth, power, and status.
However, we still don't know much about where the Mesoamerican ball game came from. The earliest versions of the ball game were probably played in the open field, and informal games were probably played wherever there was free space for millennia, meaning that they have left no archaeological evidence. Municipalities like Etlatongo and Paso de la Amada only started building stone squares when the ball game became an important social and political benchmark.
Blomster and Salazar found another structure under the 1374 BC ball court. BC in Etlatongo. It was once a long, narrow structure that was laid out in the same direction as the ball court and had been integrated into the east wall of the later ball court. The layout and orientation of the first ball court are clearly based on that of the older structure, Salazar told Ars, but archaeologists didn't have enough time in the field to dig enough of the older structure to be sure if it was one even earlier ball court. Archaeologists are not even sure how old this earliest structure is since there was nothing associated with it that could be dated to radiocarbon.
Advances in Science, 2020 DOI: 10.1126 / sciadv.aay6964 (About DOIs).