Ancient Games People Play

I measure the passing of time by seasons; whether there’s snow in the forecast or flowers in the garden. My husband, on the other hand, judges time by the game: football, basketball, baseball … but he would be at a loss to explain Ulama, an ancient Mesoamerican ball game played by the Aztecs and Mayans.

These players covered their chins, hips, elbows, knees, and thighs with deerskin to protect them from bruising as they used their bodies to hit a large rubber ball.

The object was simple: never let the ball touch the ground, and without using hands, send it through a large stone hoop. I found a video link if you’d care to watch a reenactment (Click HERE). Or, if you have ever seen the cartoon DreamWorks movie El Dorado, you might remember Tulio and Miguel cheating to win.

I discovered this game while conducting research on the Francisco Vazquez de Coronado expedition to find gold in the years 1540-42. As the army traveled through Sinaloa, Mexico, they stopped at the Spanish colony of Culiacan where the native people played the game for sport, but also to win wagers.

Ancient Ulama ball courts, some dating back to the fourth century, have been discovered in western Mexico. Excavation has uncovered rubber balls dating back to about 15oo BC. And some have said that in lieu of balls, men lost their heads to play. Literally.

Armchair archeology can dig up lots of interesting facts, and much of it helpful to enhance a fictitious story.

But I must rely on imagination to watch 16th Century conquistadors play Ulama.

Picture if you will, don Francisco’s soldiers, many in quilted cotton armor (quite good at keeping arrows from embedding flesh), kicking around a hard handmade ball, sweating in the humid coastal air, and sharing a few maguey drinks after the game (blue agave is brewed to make tequila).

In turn, would the Spaniards have returned the favor with a rousing bull fight? And will future generations find red capes in the rubbish piles of Spain? In July 2010, Catalonia parliament outlawed the game, the final ole! played out in September 2011. But not all bull fights are banned. Seems barbarianism is not confined to ancient Mesoamerica …

Play ball!

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