The Mesoamerican city of Chichen Itza was a major center for one of the world’s earliest ball sports.
Centers of Progress, Pt. 6: Chichen Itza (Team Sports)
Today marks the sixth installment in a series of articles by HumanProgress.org called Centers of Progress. Where does progress happen? The story of civilization is in many ways the story of the city. It is the city that has helped to create and define the modern world. This bi-weekly column will give a short overview of urban centers that were the sites of pivotal advances in culture, economics, politics, technology, etc. Part 5 can be found here.
Our sixth Center of Progress is the Mesoamerican city of Chichen Itza—home to the best-preserved, biggest and most elaborate playing court for what is often believed to be humanity’s first team sport and one of the world’s earliest ball sports. The sport known simply as the “Ball Game” was popular across Mesoamerica and played by all its major civilizations from the Olmecs to the Maya to the Aztecs. It has been played since at least 1650 BC and possibly as early as 2500 BC.
Impressive stone ball courts were a staple feature of pre-colonial Mesoamerican cities, with many cities having multiple courts. The simplistic earthen ball court found at the archeological site of Paso de la Amada, a ruined city in what is now southern Mexico, is the oldest known surviving ball court, dating to 1400 BC. But the stone ball court built around the year 900 AD at Chichen Itza is the largest and most ornate playing field in Mesoamerica, representing the apogee of the Ball Game in the region.
Sports of one kind or another have been a part of every culture past and present. While some animals are known to play games with a physical aspect (for example, pods of dolphins are known to play games of “catch” by tossing pufferfish back and forth like a ball), only human beings have developed true sports—with rules and scores.
Sports are among humanity’s oldest innovations. The earliest athletic competitions are believed to have been simple wrestling contests that are depicted in cave paintings. Other popular ancient sports included foot-races, chariot-races and boxing, as well as weightlifting, swimming and archery competitions. The Mesoamerican Ball Game was probably the first sport to contain the basic features of most modern team ball sports. (A rival for the title of earliest team ball sport is Cuju, which some scholars believe may be older. It is a Chinese game similar to soccer).
Today, Chichen Itza is a sprawling ruined city in the northern part of the Yucatan Peninsula in modern Mexico. Several prominent stone structures of the city remain well-preserved. Those include the Warriors’ Temple flanked by 200 columns carved in low relief to depict warriors, the Temple of Kukulcan (often called El Castillo) and the circular observatory known as El Caracol or “the snail,” named for the spiral staircase inside the tower. With over a million visitors annually, Chichen Itza is among the most popular tourist destinations in Mexico. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as well as an active archeological site.
Chichen Itza was once one of the greatest Mayan centers of the Yucatan peninsula. The Mayan civilization was a Mesoamerican civilization noted for creating the most highly developed writing system in the Americas before the arrival of Columbus. The Mayans are also famous for devising a sophisticated calendar and constructing monumental architecture, including pyramids.
Chichen Itza was founded by the Itza, a Mayan tribe or ethnic group. It was built near two earthen cavities forming natural wells or springs, which helped the people to access underground stores of water in the area. The Yucatan Peninsula is a limestone plain that lacks rivers or streams, but is marked with natural sinkholes or wells called cenotes. The city’s name means, “by the mouth of the well of the Itza.” Or, including the literal translation of Itza, “by the mouth of the well of the water-sorcerers.” The construction of Chichen Itza likely began in the 5th century AD.
The city rose to become a significant center of political, ceremonial and economic activity in Mayan civilization by roughly 600 AD. By that time, Chichen Itza had grown to one of the largest Mayan cities, comprising nearly two square miles of densely packed stone buildings. A network of nearly 100 “sacbeob,” or raised paved causeways, linked the city’s structures. Those roadways and sidewalks were likely originally coated with limestone stucco or plaster, lending them a white color. Smaller structures sprung up on the outskirts of the city, comprising Chichen Itza’s suburbs.
By the 9th century, Chichen Itza was the de facto regional capital, with the city’s rulers reigning over much of the northern and central Yucatan peninsula. Chichen Itza exhibits remarkable architectural similarities with the Toltec city of Tula, located nearly 1,000 miles away, including nearly identical temples. Attempts to explain the link between the two cultures have led to some controversy.
Some scholars believe that Toltec warriors conquered Chichen Itza in the 10th century; some believe that the Toltecs influenced Chichen Itza via cultural diffusion thanks to frequent trade exchange. Other theories abound. In any case, Chichen Itza became a mixing bowl of the Toltec and Mayan cultures. The city of Chichen Itza’s most prominent temple is to the Toltec deity Quetzalcoatl, whom the local Mayans adopted and called Kokulkan.
If you could visit Chichen Itza in its heyday, you would have been struck by its colors. While today the city’s stone remains have faded to various shades of gray, archeologists believe that originally the city’s buildings were brightly painted. You would have passed by structures in intense shades of red, green and blue, including the turquoise pigment now known as “Maya blue.”
The wealthy wore similarly colorful dyed clothes made from animal skins, as well as elaborate feather headdresses and ornate jewelry such as beaded necklaces made of gold, turquoise and jade. Men wore more jewelry than women, and taller headpieces often indicated higher status. Among those of lower status, men wore simple kilt wraps or loincloths, secured with a knot or woven belt, while women wore tunic-like huipil blouses and long skirts. Both men and women wore shawls wrapped around their shoulders during cold weather. Evidence indicates that some Mayans anointed themselves with perfumes, made from vanilla or from flowers.
Surviving chemical residues suggest that the ancient Mayans of the Yucatan peninsula traded food in open-air marketplaces. In the marketplace of Chichen Itza, you would have likely seen a rich variety of foods including avocados, plantains, limes, sour oranges, habaneros, chaya, cacao (chocolate), achiote, and fish as well as meat from creatures ranging from deer to armadillos. The staple of the Mayan diet, maize, would have been ever-present. It was often boiled in water with lime and consumed as a gruel or porridge mixed with chili pepper, or was made into a dough for baking into tortillas, flat cakes or tamales.
The Mayans are believed to have had no currency and to have utilized a barter system instead. Via trade you may been able to purchase goods ranging from ceramic pottery to woven blankets. The port at Isla Cerritos on Chichen Itza’s northern coast made the city an important commercial center, facilitating trade with other cities throughout the Americas. The people imported various goods from far away, such as red cinnabar pigment from the remote Guatemalan highlands.
At its peak, Chichen Itza had as many as 50,000 people living in the city. That’s similar to the population of Danville, Illinois, today, but it was the most populous city in the Yucatan peninsula at the time. Its population was perhaps the most diverse in the Mayan civilization, with residents from across the Yucatan, Toltec migrants and others originating from present-day Central America. The diversity may have stemmed in part from its status as a commercial center conducting frequent trade with distant peoples.
In the northwest part of the city, you might have passed the tzompantli or ceremonial wall of skulls from victims of human sacrifice—despite its contributions to athletics, Chichen Itza is not a place where a modern person would wish to live. In the distance, you might have heard the distant roar of cheering sports fans. If you kept walking, you would have come upon the great ball court, and witnessed a game of the first team ball sport.
The great ball court of Chichen Itza stretches a massive 225 feet wide and 545 feet long. The ancient sports arena’s stone platforms measure 95 feet in length and 25 feet in height. At either end of the court, on the stone walls about 20 feet above the ground, jut out stone hoops. The hoop rings are engraved with intertwined feathered serpents—depictions of the deity Kokulkan.
The court has spectacular acoustic qualities. The temples lining the ends of the court contribute to a strong echo, so that something said at one end of the court can be heard on the other side and throughout the breadth of the court. This remarkable sound transmission helped to make Chichen Itza the preeminent ball court of the Mayan civilization, amplifying the cheers of fans and the calls of the ballplayers into a deafening din.
The sides of the court are lined with benches for onlookers. These benches are sloped to help keep the ball within the court. The benches are also carved with intricate reliefs showing past Ball Game victors holding aloft the decapitated heads of their opponents. Successful ballplayers were treated as celebrities in Mayan society, showered with riches and acclaim.
Some carved panels portray teams of 11 players, plus a team captain, while others show teams of 12 and a captain, suggesting some level of variation in the game rules. The precise rules of the game are unknown, but it is believed that players passed a rubber ball across the field and knocked it through the stone hoops in order to score points.
At the end of many games, the losing team was beheaded and sacrificed to the Mayans’ deities. As Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker has noted, the extent of human sacrifice in ancient Mesoamerica serves as a stark reminder of the ubiquity of violence in the past, and of how far humanity has come since then.
That said, the Ball Game occasionally served as a substitute for war, with rival political leaders in the later Aztec civilization purportedly agreeing to confront each other on a ball court rather than on a battlefield. In fact, some psychologists believe that sports today help human beings to channel their competitive and aggressive impulses away from violence, and that athletic competitions are intertwined with the decline of overt conflict between states.
Chichen Itza’s population began to decline by the mid-13th century, when the seat of regional power within the Mayan world shifted to Mayapan, a newer city built to the southwest of Chichen Itza. In the 16th century, Spanish conquistadores constructed a temporary capital there, before eventually abandoning it.
Today, Chichen Itza is best-known as one of the most famous and frequently visited of Mexico’s Mayan historic sites. The city was voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in a global survey, and attracts tourists from across the world to marvel at its architecture.
A direct descendent of the Ball Game, Ulama, is still played today—thankfully minus the ritual killing of the losing team. As such, the Ball Game is also the oldest continuously played ball sport in the world.
The development of team sports was a significant cultural achievement. Sports have transformed the way that people spend their leisure time by being one of the most universally loved forms of entertainment. To many people, team sports fulfill deeper psychological functions, such as providing an additional sense of meaning in their lives.
Team sports enrich humanity because they are an exciting, aesthetically pleasing venue for emotional expression, an outlet for physical energy, an escape from real-world troubles or a substitute for real-world conflict. For those reasons, Chichen Itza is our 6th Center of Progress.