Researchers Discover 3,400-year-old Ballcourt in Mexican Highlands

Researchers have uncovered a 3,400-year-old ballcourt in the highlands of Oaxaca, Mexico, casting new light on the origins and evolution of a famous ballgame which was played across ancient Central America.

The ballgame is one of the most iconic features of pre-Columbian civilizations in the historical region of Mesoamerica—encompassing central Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and northern Costa Rica—playing a fundamental ritual and political role in the ancient societies which thrived there for more than 3,000 years.

The Aztecs and the Maya, for example, believed that the game symbolized the "regeneration of life and the maintenance of cosmic order," according to a study published in the journal Science Advances describing the latest find.

While several ballgames were played in Mesoamerica, the one referred to in the study was a sport played across the region in a formal ballcourt—one in which players hit the ball with their hip. This game was frequently depicted in artworks and other forms of imagery.

"There were many different games and sports played by ancient Mesoamericans, most of them not requiring an architectural ballcourt," Jeffrey Blomster, an author of the study from George Washington University, told Newsweek. "Several experts believe that the one game that required a formal ballcourt was the 'hip' ballgame—with players hitting a ball from their hips against the architecture of the court."

To date, archaeologists have identified more than 2,300 ballcourts across the region, but despite the ballgame's importance, its origins and evolution remain poorly understood.

Researchers have tended to assume that the game first originated in the Gulf Coast and southern Pacific coastal lowlands of Mesoamerica. Among the evidence for this idea comes from chemical analysis of several Aztec balls which turned out to be made from rubber extracted from a tree species associated with the southern Mesoamerican lowlands.

Furthermore, the oldest known ballcourt—which dates back to around 1650 B.C. or around 3,670 years ago—is located at Paso de la Amada, which lies in the coastal lowlands of Chiapas state in southern Mexico.

On the contrary, researchers had not documented evidence of ballcourts in the Mesoamerican highlands until around a thousand years later. However, the latest study changes that describing the discovery of two ballcourts at the site of Etlatongo in the highlands of Oaxaca, Mexico. The earlier of the two dates back to 1374 B.C., meaning it is around 800 years older than any other in the Mexican highlands. The team also found ballplayer imagery in the form of ceramic figurines at the site.

Mexico, ancient ballcourts
Researchers discovered the ballcourts below this area. Formative Etlatongo Project

According to the researchers, the findings challenge traditional assumptions about the origin of the ballgame, suggesting that both highland and lowland Mesoamerican societies played a part in its development.

"We recently excavated the earliest highland Mesoamerican ballcourt, dating to 1374 BCE, at the site of Etlatongo, in the Mixtec region of Oaxaca," Blomster said. "The ballcourt is made of two long lateral mounds, with a narrow, six-meter-wide [around 20 feet] alley between them. We conclude that Early Formative [1500 to 1000 B.C.] highland villagers played an important role in the origins of the Mesoamerican ballgame and its evolution into a crucial component of subsequent states. Since several of our ballplayer figurines wear thick protective belts or yokes around their hips, [the 'hip' game] may have been at least one of the games played at Etlatongo."

"We find it significant that both the Etlatongo ballcourt and the one earlier lowland ballcourt, from Paso de la Amada, occur in the context of societies that are becoming socio-politically more complex. The ballcourt both reflects these changes and further instigated them," Blomster said.