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Pok-Ta-Pok Essay, Research Paper

The Maya called it Pok-ta-pok. The Aztec called it Tlachtli. In Puerto Rico it was called Batey. Though may cultures had it, and although they called it different things it was still the ball game. It is difficult to tell exactly what the Mesoamerican ball game was. Of course it was a game played with a rubber ball that weighed any where from six to ten pounds. The object of the game was to score points, more points than your opponent. The players had to bounce the ball to the place to score points, which varied at the different courts, however the catch to this was that they could not use their hands or feet. “No other prehistoric sporting event has received as much attention or has been the subject of so much controversy, but no other game has been so well represented in the archaeological record.” (Blanchard, 99)

The origin of this game is not easily determined, and has caused as much controversy. Franz Blom, an archaeologist has argued that the ball game originated with the Maya. “The game which played so great a role in the life of the Middle American peoples was of Maya origin.” (Blom, 487) The evidence for Blom’s claim comes from the Maya ball courts dating back to the Classic period. Other evidence, mainly figurines, point to the Preclassic period. “While no ball courts are known for this period, it nevertheless is certain that the ball game was played, for many figurines show players with the protection for the hand and knee required for that sport.” (Coe-Mexico:Olmec, 49) Another archaeologist, Michael Coe, argues that the ball game dates back to the Olmec period. “Early ball playing figurines have been found at many Olmec sites. Coe suggests that the helmet like headpieces of the colossal Olmec carved heads may be ball game head gear, evidence that the Olmec people may have been playing the game over three thousand years ago.” (Blanchard, 100) There are even a few people who believe that the ball game originated in with the Toltec. (Searborough, 145)

Ball courts were of various sizes and shapes. Many of the ball courts of the same cultures had roughly the same shape. “Although the ball courts ranged in size from the smallest two man variety of approximately thirty feet in length to the large court at Chichen Itza, the design was fairly consistent from one area to another.” (Blanchard, 102) The equipment was fairly basic from place to place, ball court to ball court. The ball that was used in the Mesoamerican ball game was usually made out of rubber, although there has been a little evidence of a stone ball. “A stone yoke and a spherical stone ball were recovered at Iximche.” (Searborough, 224) However most sources agree that the ball was usually made out of rubber, generally a solid. Occasionally the ball was made in the southern lowlands of Mexico, although some believe that the first balls came from South America. The various equipment that was used in the ball game was often as elaborate as todays football equipment. Besides the ball itself there was many other pieces of equipment which included “stone yokes or belts, hand-stones, padlock stones, leather gloves, knee pads, chin pieces, half-masks and headgear.” (Blanchard, 102) The yokes were carved u-shaped stones that weighed around sixty pounds. “The evidence suggests that despite their bulk they were worn by the players for protection as well as for striking the ball.” (Blanchard, 102) The other equipment was used for safety and possibly for hitting the ball. The equipment is usually elaborately designed and is also represented in the art and reliefs found in archaeological sites.

There were several reasons that the Mesoamerican people played the ball game. Some believe that the ball game was a preparation for war/physical combat/mock war. Others believe it was for ritual/ceremonial purposes, and still others believe it was a mode for population control. Most believe that it was a combination of these and others including, but not limited to, economics.

One reason that this game was played could have been for physical combat/mock war,. “The ball game was a form of physical combat, a mock war. Thus, it could be argued that the ball game, with all its brutality, intensity, and pain, was a substitute for war.” (Blanchard, 106) “Furthermore, the ball game often plays a specific role vis a vis warfare. Set in the ceremonial precinct, the ball game provided the means or controlled re-enactment of warfare.” (Miller, 96) Sometimes the ball game was even a substitute for warfare, at the least possible a deterrent. “Systematic, aggressive warfare is practiced by only a few of the peoples that have the game, although war itself is known to all. It is no accident that strong parallel exist between warfare patterns and those of the competitive ball game.” (Stern, 96) This ball game not only represented a mock war but it could cause death and injury as real war or combat can. “[Fray Diego de] Duran’s frequently quoted description of the Aztec ball game captures that sense of frantic, bone jarring combat:

‘All those who played this game were stripped except for their usual breechcloths, on top of which they wore coverings of deerskin to defend their thighs, which were continually being scratched on the floor. they wore gloves so as not to injure their hands, which they constantly set down firmly, supporting themselves against the floor. . . .

Some of these men [the players] were taken out dead from that place for the following reason. Tired and without having rested, they ran after the ball from end to end, seeing it descending from above, in haste and hurry to reach it first, but the ball on the rebound hit them in the mouth or the stomach or the intestines, so that they fell to the floor instantly. Some died of that blow on the spot because they had been too eager to touch the ball before anyone else. Some took a special pride in this game and performed so many feats in it that it was truly amazing. . . . They employed a bounce or curious hit. On seeing the ball come at them, at the moment that it was about to touch the floor, they were so quick in turning their knees or buttocks to the ball that they returned it with extraordinary swiftness. With this bouncing back and forth they suffered terrible injuries on their knees or thighs so that the haunches of those who made use of these tricks were frequently bruised that these spots had to be opened with a small blade, whereupon the blood which had clotted there because of the blows of the ball squeezed out.’” (Blanchard, 103)

Some physical combat can help resolve conflicts whether it be military or other types of conflicts. Games, even in our modern time, have been used to resolve conflicts. “Among numerous complex societies around the world, games are documented as ways of resolving conflicts.” (Searborough, 174) In this fact Mesoamerica was no different, granted it may not have been used like this all over Mesoamerica, but in some parts it was used like this. “In northern Chiapas and in the Usumacinta Valley the ball game was played in a similar way [a duel, or game].” (Searborough, 174)

The Mesoamerican ball game had a significant amount of ritual in it. “Another possible factor in the long life of the Mesoamerica ball game was its significance as ritual.” (Blanchard, 107) This ritual most of the time seemed to represent parts of the religious beliefs, although mostly Maya and Aztec beliefs, mainly seen as sacrifices. “Coastal Lowlands scenes usually depict the post-game sacrificial ritual, sometimes in a ball court setting, with the ball decorated as a skull,” (Searborough, 254) There is much debate over who was sacrificed after the ball games, many say it was the winning side, some even say it was the losing side. Archaeological records, mainly art or reliefs, shows that the losing side was sacrificed. “In one relief, over which the Death God presides, the losing captain is apparently being sacrificed by the victors, who brandish a flint knife over his heart: the game played in El Tajin was not lightly won or lost.” (Coe-Mexico, 122) Along with the idea of human sacrifices being done the ball game could have been used as a way of population control. “If indeed human sacrifice was a normal compliment of games, then it could be argued that the institution served as population control device.” (Blanchard, 107) This idea may have been conscious or unconscious in the minds of the Mesoamerican people. “Among the Aztecs both war and sacrifice were unconscious checks on population growth in a state where resources were strained by excessive numbers.” (Cook, 81) It is possible that after the human sacrifice that the Aztecs, and possibly other cultures, consumed the sacrifice. This was due to the peoples diets at the time. They were deficient in protein and meat, so therefore by eating the sacrifice they could be putting more food back into the peoples diets. Ethnologist Michael Harner has proposed this idea as well. ” That not only were these Mesoamerican theocrats ritual slaughtering people, but that they were also eating the flesh of their victims. [He argues that] The reason for this practice has to be seen in the serious protein deficiency characteristic of the Aztec diet.” (Harner, 118)

The ball game was not always just for sacrifice, in it they represented some of their myths. “It was to this ball court that these offspring of the dead brothers ultimately returned to sacrifice each other and come back to life, triumphing over the Lords of Death and establishing the cosmic relationship between eternally dead gods and regenerative human beings. It was to this ball court that those human beings ‘of the light born, the light engendered’ would return, the Lords of the Maya. The ball game was the pivot of the cycle of creation.” (Searborough, 290) As well as the ball game possibly representing myths the ball games also may have “rites of passage.” “No correlation, either positive or negative, is yet manifest relative to boys’ puberty rites, although the demands upon the manly skill and endurance of the participant suggests that the game may sometimes have functioned as an ordeal or demonstration of manhood.” (Stern, 96)

There was a combination of other factors that were involved in the ball games, including but not limited to economics. “It is likely that a combination of factors, economic, social, and religious, have been at work in the development, elaboration, and survival of the Mesoamerican ball game.” (Blanchard, 107) The elites of the cities that had ball games might possibly have used the ball games as a way to increase wealth and the economy. “Ball courts functioned as facilities built for use by elites as an alternative means to acquire wealth and territory.” (Searborough, 23) However this was not just a monopoly for the elites, the commoners and peasants had some economic gains through the ball game. “The game probably had an immediate though less consequential economic effect on the non-elite sustaining population.” (Searborough, 142)

There were ball courts all over Mesoamerica, mostly Mayan and Aztec. ” The dedication of ballcourts through the interment of foundation caches and burials transformed these structures into sacred and social places, defining them as suitbale stages for ritual action.” (Fox, 485) The various sites include El Tajin, Oaxaca, and Tehuaccan Valley. Of course these are not the only sites, and the sites are not only in the Mexican area as some believe. There were sites in Puerto Rico, Guatemalan, and even some in the southwestern United States ( Hohokam site). The ball games would have gotten to these locations by several means. People moving from one place to another is one explanation. There was trade going on that reached all over Mesoamerica and into the United States, so it is possible that the game was passed on from one group of people to another along these trade routes.

The ball games caused many social happenings, not the least of which was gambling. Just like modern times the peoples of Mesoamerica would wager on the outcome of the games, and these were not just the elites but commoners as well. “The commoners and the peasants- either as players or spectators- also gambled on the outcome of the ball games.” (Blanchard, 104) There seemed to be no limit on what could be wagered. “Among the nobility who played, the items wagered included turquoise, gold, emeralds, jade, corn fields, slaves, women, and children; in some cases whole kingdoms. In one famous contest, the Mexican priest-king Axayacatl is reported to have played against the lord of Xochhimilco and laid the marketplace of Mexico against a garden belonging to his lord. He lost. The next day, Mexican soldiers appeared at the palace of the fortunate winner and while they saluted him and made him presents they threw a garland of flowers about his neck with a thong hidden in it and so it killed him.” (Blanchard, 104) By participating these games or as a spectator one had the chance of increasing his social or political status, not to mention their wealth. ” However, the rubber-ball game also functioned at the level of ’status gambling’ and alliance maintince. It brought opposing groups together to vie for social and political status.” (Searborough, 142)

The Mesoamerican ball game is one of the most talked about sport in the prehistoric record because it is found more than any other. This game seems to have had some important relations to the people, if it did not then the game might have died out and not have spread. This was a dangerous game that was not just open to the elites but to everyone, no matter what their status is. No one is really sure where the ball game originated from, although some evidence points to the Olmec or Toltec civilizations/cultures. The rubber for the ball original came from the Amazon region of South America, then was latter refined and collect from the coastal region of the Gulf of Mexico (southern end, near the Yucatan peninsula). The ball game served the purpose of human sacrifice to the Gods, for those who had this in their religion, and as a supplemental food sources (Aztec culture). There are many other facets to the Mesoamerican ball game than what is shown here. The Mesoamerican ball game seems to be still around, in part or full, in some areas of Mesoamerica. These areas are especially those areas that have more native population where the ball game was played most.

Works Cited

Blanchard, Kendall and Alyce Cheska. The Anthropology of Sport:

An Introduction. Bergin Garvey Publishers, Inc. 1985.

Blom, Franz. The Maya Ballgame Pok-ta-pok. Middle American

Research Series, Pub. 4, No. 13. Tulane Universty Press


Coe, Michael. Mexico. Hazell Watson and Viney Ltd.

Coe, Michael. Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs.

Thames and Hudson Ltd, London. 1994.

Cook, Sherburne. Human Sacrifice and Warfare as Factors in the

Demography of Precolonial Mexico. 1946.

Fox, John Gerard. Playing with Power: Ballcourts and Political Ritual in Southern Mesoamerica. Current Anthropology, June 1996, v37 n3, Pg. 483.

Harner, Michael. The Ecological Basis for Aztec Sacrifice.

American Ethnologist, 1977.

Miller, Mary Ellen. The Art of Mesoamerica: From Olmec to Aztec.

Thames and Hudson Ltd, London. 1996.

Searbrough, Vernon L. and David R. Wilcox. The Mesoamerican

Ballgame. University of Arizona Press. 1991.

Stern, Theodore. The Rubber-Ball Games of the Americas. Monographs of the American Ethnological Society, No. 17. J.J. Augustin Publisher, New York. 1950.

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