History | In hard stone, ancient ball-playing exploits remain

Ongoing exhibits in Chicago and Washington, D.C., feature artifacts of ball-playing in Mesoamerican cultures as part of larger surveys of the ancient Americas.


A ceremonial hip belt of hard gray stone, among artifacts discovered in Puerto Rico in deposits left by the Taíno (700–1500 CE). During the Taíno ball game, known as batey, the ball could be struck with shoulder, elbow, head, hips, buttock or knees—not with the hands. Players wore hip protection of leather and wicker. (Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress | Photo © Justin Kerr, Kerr Associates)

The Ancient Americas” at the Field Museum and “Exploring the Early Americas” at the Library of Congress depict the interaction of Maya, Aztec, Inca, Taíno and other Mesoamerican civilizations with European explorers (see New York Times review). In Washington, curators have placed several ball-playing relics on display, including the Taíno ceremonial belt (see above) and a well-known limestone bas-relief of a Maya player in headdress (see 30 Jun 07 for more on the Maya ball games). The online version of the Field Museum exhibition includes a picture of a small ball court in Tikal, now part of the Petén region of northern Guatemala.

In Washington one can see a Diego Rivera watercolor commissioned for a 1931 edition of the Popol Vuh, the Maya creation tale that features the ball-playing exploits of the first four humans.

“Now it still ripples, now it still murmurs, ripples, it still sighs, still hums, and it is empty under the sky,” the story begins. Summarizes E. Michael Whittington in the introduction to The Sport of Life and Death: The Mesoamerican Ballgame (Thames & Hudson, 2001)—the companion catalog to an exhibition mounted several years ago by the Mint Museum of Art in Charlotte, North Carolina:

Beginning in a time of profound quiet and stillness, the gods made the earth and all its creatures, they planted the first maize, and, finally, they created humanity. The actions of the gods were models for human behavior. Not coincidentally, the gods were terrific ballplayers. The Popol Vuh establishes the absolute preeminence of the ballgame in ancient Maya mythology and life. … The story’s protagonists, the Hero Twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque, are ballplayers without peers, talents they inherited from their deity fathers. (17)

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

Comments (2)

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  1. Corey says:

    I have a question about the history of ball games which is related to above article.

    The Maori have an ancient ball game, called ki-o-rahi today, which is very old and was brought to New Zealand by the first Polynesian seafarers some one thousand years ago.

    Since these original Pacific Island settlers also had the kumara and chicken, which they attained from the Americas, could their ball games also have been derived from the Americas?

  2. It’s a very interesting question. David Goldblatt does not deal with ki-o-rahi in his section on football’s prehistory. I have a copy of Thor Heyerdahl‘s American Indians in the Pacific, first published in 1952. He suggests a link between Maori cultures and the Native Americans and First Nations of the Northwest coast. But Heyerdahl does not appear to address games in these cultures.

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