In This Bizarre And Sometimes Deadly Ancient Sport, It’s All About The Hips
The oldest known sport in the world, played a millennia before the first Greek Olympic Games, is being revived.
In this bizarre-looking game, teams of four use only their hips to control the ball, juggling it in the air or sliding to tackle it on the ground.
Yes, with their hips.
The aim of the game is to control the ball and keep it in the field of play.
Known today as “ulama,” the sport is played with a large, hard rubber ball that weighs 4.4 pounds. Its precursor is referred to in history books as the “Mesoamerican ballgame,” a ritual sport played since 1400 B.C.
Archaeologists believe ancient ulama equipment included a loincloth, hip guards, a thick girdle, kneepads, a type of garter, and elaborate headdresses and helmets.
Games were played as part of significant events and held ritual connotations. They were also used as a way to diffuse conflicts without war, to decide the outcomes of inter-kingdom disputes.
Some cultures combined the sport with human sacrifice… with the losing team being… well, you know…
Morbid speculation suggests that the skulls were used as balls for play, but modern doctors think this was improbable due to the unwieldy and difficult nature of controlling such an unbalanced projectile.
Even without the human sacrifice component, ulama can be brutal. If the ball hits a player in the head, throat, or stomach, it can be deadly.
Conquistadors who witnessed the sport in the time of the Maya and Aztec wrote that ulama players were perpetually bruised, sometimes so badly that their skin had to be lanced open.
The game originated in the Olmec heartland along the Gulf of Mexico. However, eventually, the sport was played by all the major civilizations in Mesoamerica, including the Olmec, the Aztec, the Maya, and many smaller empires.
Originally, games were played in masonry structures called courts. More than 1,300 Mesoamerican ballcourts have been identified to date all over the Americas, and more are discovered every year.
The courts were long, narrow alleys flanked by sloping horizontal walls that were plastered and brightly painted. Early courts were open-ended; later ones were enclosed.
Courts were usually four times longer than they were wide, but court sizes varied greatly. For example, the Great Ball Court of Chichén Itzá was 96.5 by 30 meters (316 by 96 feet).
The Maya were the first to introduce wall stone rings at either end of the court. A decisive victory was won if the ball was bumped through the ring.
We know that Aztec players lost a point if they let the ball bounce twice.
While evidence of what was worn during the games can only be gleaned from hieroglyphics, sculptures, and carvings, many of the rubber balls have survived. Ulama balls have been found alongside ritual offerings to the gods in temples and grave sites across the region.
By the early Pre-Classical period the stone courts fell out of favor. Nowadays, the game is played on a flat area, usually bare earth, measuring 30 by 15 meters.
It involves four players and could be compared to net-less volleyball, with two sides to the court. Players pass the ball back and forth between the two sides until one team fails to return the ball or it goes out of bounds.
Here in Belize, the Maya began reintroducing ulama in 2015 with great success.
The “Pok Ta Pok” team from Yo Creek Village in the Orange Walk District of Belize returned victorious from the second Juego de Pelota Mesoamericano Ulamaztli championship held in Teotihuacán, Mexico City, Mexico, in April last year.
Then, in October 2017, the very same Yo Creek team won the Annual International Mesoamerican Ball Game Competition in Guatemala (the ulama World Cup, essentially) bringing pride to their village and honor to their ancestors.