Years after 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 made from cacao beans. Yet it was a simple object from the New World that truly 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 between two teams of Aztecs demonstrating their indigenous game of ulama. Without using their hands or feet, the natives volleyed the ball back and forth with just their hips, knees and buttocks. The elastic orb pinballing between the players was nothing like the lifeless leather spheres filled with hair, feathers and air that the Europeans had used to play early versions of tennis, jai alai and football.
Little did the Spaniards transfixed by the ulama players and their kinetic ball realize they were witnessing a demonstration of one of the world’s oldest sports, which had originated more than 3,000 years earlier with the ancient Mesoamerican Olmecs, whose name translates in Nahuatl to “rubber people.” Archeologists working in Mexico and Central America have unearthed rubber balls dating back to 1600 B.C. as well as terra cotta figurines of ulama players from around 1200 B.C. Between Flagstaff, Arizona, in the north and Honduras in the south, archaeologists have discovered more than 1,500 ancient ulama ball courts used 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 each extremity. As author John Fox describes in “The Ball: Discovering the Object of the Game,” ulama was played under various rules in different regions and eras, but in general teams of up to seven players scored points when the opponent failed to 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 included vertical stone rings about 10 feet off the ground through which the ball could be struck to score points.
In some ulama games the stakes were truly high—and it had nothing to do with wagering. Playing fields were consecrated to the gods, and occasionally losers could be ritually decapitated as shown by reliefs at ball courts found 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 only a few isolated pockets of rural Mexico, such as in the province of Sinaloa, but its legacy surrounds us. The rubber ball that captivated Europe five centuries ago continues to enthrall us. From tennis to basketball to soccer, rubber is an essential element of the balls used today to play the world’s major sports.