How Did Mayans Play Ballgame?

Archaeologists have pieced together information about the ballgame from different sources: excavations of historic ballcourts, documents from the colonial period (written either by Europeans or indigenous peoples who learned to write in English or Spanish) and from iconography — that is, indigenous glyphs depicting the game and its players.

Even today, some Mesoamerican cultures play the ballgame, although it’s unclear how similar these games are to the ancient predecessor, Helmke said.

These various sources show that the ballgame was widespread and extremely important in the Pre-Columbian Americas, where it was played as far north as the American Southwest, in Arizona and New Mexico. It was also played throughout Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, and even in northern South America, in Colombia.

Just like dialects, the rules likely varied in different places, Helmke said. But the ballgames had this in common: The sport was played on a capital I-shaped field known as a playing alley. Usually, the playing alley was adobe or smooth polished plaster, made from limestone. In other words, it would hurt if you fell on it, he said.

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