The ancient Mesoamerican sport of ulama was hazardous to its players, and teams on the wrong side of the score could lose their heads with their games. The rubber sphere in the centre of the 3,500-year-old game, so even, paved the true method for the bouncing balls utilised to play today’s most typical sports.
Years following his conquest of Mexico, Hernan Cortés returned to the royal court of Spain’s King Carlos V in 1528 bearing riches and an exotic chocolate drink produced from cacao beans. Yet it had been a straightforward object from the New World that basically mesmerized the Spanish conquistador’s fellow countrymen-a bouncy rubber ball.
The royal court sat spellbound as their darting eyes followed the gravity-defying rubber ball ricocheting among two teams of Aztecs demonstrating their indigenous game of ulama. Without utilizing their hands or feet, the natives volleyed the ball and forth with just their hips back, buttocks and knees. The elastic orb pinballing on the list of players was nothing at all just like the lifeless leather spheres filled up with hair, feathers and air that the Europeans had used to play early versions of tennis, jai football and alai.
Pedro Mártir de Anghiera, royal historian to King Carlos V, have been similarly amazed by way of a rubber ball cut back from Hispaniola in 1493 by Christopher Columbus immediately after his second voyage to the New World. “I don’t understand how when the balls hit the ground they are sent into the air with such incredible bounce,” he wrote.
Little did the Spaniards transfixed by the ulama players and their kinetic ball comprehend they are witnessing a demonstration of an individual of the world’s oldest sports, which had originated a lot more than 3,000 years earlier with the ancient Mesoamerican Olmecs, whose name translates in Nahuatl to “rubber people.” Archeologists employed in Mexico and Central America have unearthed rubber balls dating back to to 1600 B.C. along with terra cotta figurines of ulama players from about 1200 B.C. Between Flagstaff, Arizona, in the north and Honduras in the south, archaeologists can see a lot more than 1,500 ancient ulama ball courts employed by the Olmecs and subsequent Mayan and Aztec civilizations.
Ulama ball courts featured narrow alleys flanked on the sides by sloping stone walls and wider end zones on every single extremity. As author John Fox describes in “The Ball: Discovering the Object of the Game,” ulama was played beneath numerous guidelines in various regions and eras, however in basic teams as high as seven players scored points once the opponent didn’t return the ball as in tennis or if the ball was driven past an opponent’s end zone as in American football. Some ball courts also integrated vertical stone rings about 10 feet off the bottom by which the ball could possibly be struck to score points.
Players wore gloves to safeguard their hands from the stones that paved the ground of ball courts as effectively as short deerskin garments a lot more than their loincloths to provide padding when struck by the nine-pound, volleyball-sized sphere, manufactured by boiling raw latex harvested from the jungles of Mesoamerica using what archaeologists believe was the juice of morning glory vines. Even with the added protection, though, the potent force to be struck by the heavy ulama ball could nevertheless cause significant injuries. “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,” reported Spanish friar Diego Duran.
Elements of the ancient game of ulama wouldn’t normally be unfamiliar to today’s sports fans. Much like American football on Thanksgiving, ulama was a staple of religious feast days. Fox writes that spectators sitting on walls above ball courts feasted on venison and an alcoholic drink created from fermented corn-“the ancient Mayan equivalent of hot dogs and beer”-and much as in modern-day college sports, “elite sponsors provided housing and food for the best ballplayers, trained them rigorously and then challenged other teams to competition.” The sport was also soaked in gambling. According to Duran, the Aztecs “gambled their homes, their fields, their corn granaries, their maguey plants. They sold their children in order to bet and even staked themselves and became slaves to be sacrificed later if they were not ransomed.”
In some ulama games the stakes have already been truly high-and it had nothing at all related to wagering. Playing fields have been consecrated to the gods, and sometimes losers could possibly be ritually decapitated as shown by reliefs at ball courts bought at Chichen Itza and elsewhere that depict skulls and beheadings.
The Spanish, who increasingly viewed ulama as a heathen pastime, banned the sport in 1585. Today, ulama survives in mere a few isolated pockets of rural Mexico, such such as the province of Sinaloa, but its legacy surrounds us. The rubber ball that captivated Europe five centuries ago is constantly on the enthrall us. From tennis to basketball to soccer, rubber can be an essential aspect of the balls used today that can be played the world’s major sports.