Pitz, the first team sport

The first team sport was a ball-game played already by the Olmecs in the first millennium BCE, but it was later adopted by other Mexican societies and it was particular popular among the Maya. It was known as pitz among the Maya and as õllamaliztli among the Aztecs. Although the exact rules are unclear, the game was played by two teams with 2-4 players each who kept a large rubber ball in motion by means of their hips. The games were played in large ballcourts with enthusiastic crowds betting on the outcome and cheering on their favorite teams. Successful ballplayers were celebrities in Mayan society, adored by women and favored by the gods.

Occasionally games would take place between kings as a substitute for war or between noblemen as a way to resolve conflicts. The winner would then rule over the losers. This hypothesis is confirmed by the fact that the more centralized and powerful states — such as the Aztecs — had relatively fewer ballcourts than societies where the state was weaker. That is, ballgames served as a substitute for state-imposed justice.

But the game had religious connotations too. According to a legend which often was depicted on the walls of the ballcourts themselves, two twins, Hun Hunaphu and Xbalanque, made so much noise playing ball that the gods of the underworld were annoyed and challenged them to a game. The game ended with one of the brothers being decapitated and his head being used as a ball. From the decapitated trunk blood squirted out which fertilized and rejuvenated the earth.

The games played on an ordinary basis made references to this myth, but in addition commemorative games were held when bloodlettings took place and humans were sacrifices. [Read more:Royal bloodletting rituals“] Yet ordinary games could be brutal too. The large rubber ball would bounce around in an unpredictable fashion and could hit the players with devastating effect. To protect themselves they used belts and helmets.

There are still many ball-courts left in Central America. In the Chiapas region of Mexico alone there are some 300, and there is a ballcourt as far north as in Arizona. In fact, the game itself is still played in parts of Mexico. Today the rules are similar to those of volleyball, but played without a net.

External links:

History of the World in 100 Objects, “Ceremonial ballgame belt”