Mesoamerican Play Ball: 3,400 Years Ago in Mexico

The discovery of a 3,400-year-old ball court in Mexico's highlands has scientists re-evaluating the origins of the game.
Marcia Wendorf
View of Sierra Mixtaca, located in Oaxaca and the Plans of the Ballpark1, 2

Say you have the day off, and you feel like going down to the ballpark and watching a game. That's not so unusual, unless you happen to be a highland dweller living in 1,400 BCE in what is today Oaxaca, Mexico.

Recently, two researchers at George Washington University, Jeffrey Blomster and Victor Salazar Chávez announced their discovery of an ancient ballpark at their Etlatongo dig site. The site was excavated between 2015 and 2017 by the Formative Etlatongo Project (FEP).

Etlatongo dig site
Etlatongo dig site, Source: Google Maps

This is the first time a ballpark has been found at that elevation and dating to that era. The ballpark was comprised of a strip of playing area surrounded by elevated seating for spectators, and a mound that surrounded the entire site. The courts themselves were narrow, made of brick, and surrounded by stone walls.

Mesoamerican Play Ball: 3,400 Years Ago in Mexico
Source: Jeffrey P. Blomster and Víctor E. Salazar Chávez/AAAS


While the actual rules of the game have been lost to time, it is thought that the goal was to keep the ball in constant motion, similar to today's volleyball or racquetball. Players banked shots off the sidewalls using their torsos and hips.

Ball player
Ball player, Source: Walters Art Museum/Wikimedia Commons

At the Etlatongo site, Blomster and Salazar Chávez also found ceramic whistles made to look like men dressed in loincloths and belts, which is the assumed players' attire, and animal bones and shells. Perhaps, the spectators picnicked while watching the game.

Mesoamerican Play Ball: 3,400 Years Ago in Mexico
Source: Jeffrey P. Blomster and Víctor E. Salazar Chávez/AAAS

Archaeologists have found around 2,300 ball courts throughout Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and northern Costa Rica. Both the Maya and Aztec peoples played ball using rubber balls.

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Since the rubber came from the Castilla elastica tree, which only grows on the lowland plains of southern Mesoamerica, researchers were surprised to find the ballpark at an elevation.

The oldest known ball court, Paso de la Amada, is located in the lowlands of Chiapas, Mexico, and dates to 1,650 BCE.

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