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One of the great travesties of the European invasion of the Americas—if you can set aside the genocide, the chattel slavery, and other war crimes—was the destruction of history. Across the continent, invaders burned books, wiped out languages, and replaced ancient cities with their own settlements. That’s what happened in Mexico City, built on the ruins of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. But now, the excavation of an Aztec temple and a ceremonial ball court in the city itself has revealed that history can look strangely familiar to modern eyes.
A Dream Beneath The City
Because so many great indigenous cities were destroyed, it’s easy to slip into the assumption that they were small, or primitive, or ephemeral by design. But Tenochtitlan was an undisputed architectural marvel. Using advanced draining and construction techniques, the city of stone seemed to rest on the surface of Lake Texcoco, and used freshwater springs that fed the lake as a constant source of drinking water. In the words of conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo, “We were amazed and said that it was like the enchantments… on account of the great towers and cues and buildings rising from the water, and all built of masonry. And some of our soldiers even asked whether the things that we saw were not a dream.”
The discovery of this 15th-century ball court and temple has already revealed much about the customs of the Aztecs before the Spanish invasion. The temple was devoted to Ehecatl, a god of the wind, and its prominent, half-circle design would have stood in stark contrast to the angular buildings that made up the rest of Tenochtitlan. The ballcourt may be the more significant discovery, however, because of the role the Mesoamerican ball game played in cultures as far north as Arizona to Nicaragua. The game wasn’t just a national pastime, and that’s putting it mildly. Besides the play area at this particular court, for example, archaeologists unearthed no fewer than 32 severed neck vertebrae—likely belonging to the losing teams. So what was this game that would inspire players to literally risk their necks?
The Ultimate Contact Sport
It’s hard to overstate the importance of the Mesoamerican ball game to indigenous cultures across the Americas. It’s one of the oldest sports in the world, and the first we know of to have used a rubber ball—examples of these balls have been dated to 1600 B.C.E. The game changed a lot as it slowly migrated north over its long history, but some rules remained constant in pretty much every iteration. Like racquetball, the goal is to keep the ball in play, and points can be scored when the opposing team knocks it out of bounds. In most versions, players can only knock the ball around with their hips—hands and feet are off limits. Later versions added the great stone-walled courts, which were then further modified with vertical hoops that players could bounce the ball through in order to score bonus points.
But as you might have guessed by that pile of vertebrae, winning the game wasn’t just a matter of hometown pride. In the Mayan version of the game, opposing city-states might choose to settle their differences on the ballcourt instead of on the battlefield, and also used the game as a means of foretelling the future. By the time the Aztecs adopted it, the ritual decapitation of the losing team was as much a part of the game as the pop-up fly rule is in baseball—though probably not as controversial.
Believe it or not, the Mesoamerican ball game isn’t just one of the oldest known sports, it’s one of the oldest that’s been continuously played up to this day. Called ulama, the modern-day version of the game features substantially less decapitation than its predecessor. It survived in remote communities, and in recent years, a new generation of the descendents of Mesoamerican peoples have found a new fascination with the game. In 2017, hundreds of people from various Latin American countries visited the ancient city of Teotihuacán for the first international ulama tournament. If it’s true that ulama can be used to tell the future, then maybe the game is on the cusp of a new revival.
— Reuters Top News (@Reuters) June 9, 2017
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