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Mesoamerican ball game

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The Mesoamerican ball game was a sport played by the peoples of Mesoamerica beginning around 1,000 B.C.E. A version of the game continues to be played today. It was played by the Mayans and the Aztecs, and there is some evidence that it might have originated with the Olmecs. The Aztec version of the game was called ullamalitzli.

The object of the ball game was to shoot a ball through a stone hoop about 35 inches in diameter.[1] The ball, called an ulli, was made out of rubber and weighed about nine pounds,[1] roughly the weight of a brick. The court, called tlachtili, was around 100 to 200 feet long with an outer wall on each side on which the stone hoops hung.[1] The court, was usually in the shape of an “I,” although the shape sometimes varied.[2] There was a center line running the length of the court vertically, and from that line the floor sloped to meet the walls. The players were allowed to use only their heads, elbows, legs, and hips to hit the ball.[2] The ball also was not allowed to touch the ground, so the players often dove to avoid losing points.[1] If one of the teams managed to get the ball through the stone hoop, the game would be over and that team would win. However, it was also possible to score points by hitting the six markers found alongside the edges of the court.[1]

Gambling played a large part in the culture surrounding the ballgame. Nearly anything could be gambled on the outcome of the game, such as ornate feathers, children or even the wagerers' own lives. The losers sometimes sold themselves into slavery just so they could pay off their debt. The winning or losing of the game, especially when played between two rival city-states, could turn into an excuse to start an attack or attempt an assassination. Sometimes one of the teams was even sacrificed after the game.

The Mesoamerican ballgame also held profound religious significance. In Aztec culture, for example, the game was meant to represent the combat that occurred daily on the "ball court" in the underworld, where the sun fought with the night to get across. The religious meaning of the game was linked to the Aztec practice of human sacrifice, since the Aztecs believes that without human sacrifice the sun would stop and the earth would be plunged into darkness. Sometimes skulls of human sacrifices were used to decorate the ball court, and the ball itself was said to represent the head of a human sacrifice. Sometimes, the losing team (or, according to some historians, the winning team) would be sacrificed after the game.[1]

In modern times, the Aztec ballgame was transformed into ulama, played in a few communities in the Mexican state of Sinaloa. The courts are temporary, made by drawing thick lines in the dirt. There are three different ways to play ulama, all somewhat similar to Tlachtili, in which players may use their hips, forearms, or paddles to hit a ball.