Sports at Chichen Itza: The Great Ball Court

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The ball court at Chichen Itza is one of the oldest known game courts in human history. The game is often referred to as Tiatchtli, and has been played since 1,000 B.C. Modern versions of the game are still played to this day by local populations, but the how the details of the game and how it was played by their ancient Mayan ancestors is still unknown.

Most people recognize the famous stone goals; this is actually a later addition to the game. The original version is even more mysterious than the late versions; seeing that we have no idea how they kept score before the stone hoop was added. The few rules we do know of belong to the time after a stone hoop was instituted. A single successful hoop could make a win, and being able to touch the ball to the vertical stone hoop scored individual points.

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In the most popular versions of the game, players were allowed to use their hips, forearms, and even rackets. It’s much like a mix between tennis, basketball, and soccer. The game ball itself weighed up to 9 pounds. This is known because of archaeological digs at and around the ball court of Chichen Itza that have uncovered ancient game balls.

The exact size of the game balls are not known, this is because the Mayans were able to make the balls out of rubber and Guamol tree. The balls uncovered during digs had been buried by the players as an offering, and leave archaeologists with no idea if the balls recovered were actually used or just made specifically for an offering.

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There have been several ball courts found across Mesoamerica, but the largest, by far, is the 45-meter wide ball court of Chichen Itza. At Chichen Itza, the courts have higher hoops and a much larger playing field than any other of the discovered game courts. The smallest court was found in Tikal, measuring only 16 meters. This size and proportions of the Chichen Itza game field lead some to believe that only the most important games were played in the Chichen Itza ball court.

Many believe that the losers, or perhaps even the winners, were sacrificed. The evidence for sacrifice over a ball game has only been proved later in the Mayan existence. They didn’t start associating sacrifice with the games until the Classic Era. That era was near the end of their civilization, just before they scattered and vanished from their vast cities.

The uniforms for the Mayan and Aztec ball game have been lost to time and decay. All that remains of the gear they once wore are the drawings and paintings that are left depicting the players. Not much was used in way of protection, but archaeologists believe they used simple loin clothes with hip guards fitted to the individual players. These “hip guards” were little more than leather straps, nothing near the well protected pads you would think of being worn by modern American football players.

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Check for the Chichen Itza Tour package here.