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.
Pedro Mártir de Anghiera, royal historian to King Carlos V, had been similarly amazed by a rubber ball brought back from Hispaniola in 1493 by Christopher Columbus after his second voyage to the New World. “I don’t understand how when the balls hit the ground they are sent into the air with such incredible bounce,” he wrote.
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.
Players wore gloves to protect their hands from the stones that paved the floor of ball courts as well as short deerskin garments over their loincloths to provide padding when struck by the nine-pound, volleyball-sized sphere, manufactured by boiling raw latex harvested from the jungles of Mesoamerica with what archaeologists believe was the juice of morning glory vines. Even with the added protection, though, the force of being struck by the heavy ulama ball could still cause significant injuries. “The ball on the rebound hit them in the mouth or the stomach or the intestines, so that they fell to the floor instantly. Some died of that blow on the spot because they had been too eager to touch the ball before anyone else,” reported Spanish friar Diego Duran.
Elements of the ancient game of ulama would not be unfamiliar to today’s sports fans. Much like American football on Thanksgiving, ulama was a staple of religious feast days. Fox writes that spectators sitting on walls above ball courts feasted on venison and an alcoholic drink made from fermented corn—“the ancient Mayan equivalent of hot dogs and beer”—and much as in modern-day college sports, “elite sponsors provided housing and food for the best ballplayers, trained them rigorously and then challenged other teams to competition.” The sport was also soaked in gambling. According to Duran, the Aztecs “gambled their homes, their fields, their corn granaries, their maguey plants. They sold their children in order to bet and even staked themselves and became slaves to be sacrificed later if they were not ransomed.”
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.