The first team sport was a ball-game played already by the Olmecs in the first millennium BCE. It was later adopted by other Mexican societies and it was particular popular among the Mayas. 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. The object was to keep a large rubber ball in motion by means of the hips. The games were played in large ball courts 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 ball games would serve as a substitute for war. Instead of fighting it out on a battle field, two kings would confront each other in a ball court. It was also a way for noblemen to resolve conflicts.
But the game had religious connotations too and they feature in the creation myths of the Maya. According to a legend which often was depicted on the walls of the ball courts 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 the earth. Ordinary ball games made references to this myth, but in addition commemorative games were occasionally held when blood-lettings took place and human beings were sacrificed. [Read more: “Royal bloodletting rituals“] Yet ordinary games could be quite brutal too. The large rubber ball would bounce around in an unpredictable fashion and they 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 ball court as far north as in the U.S. state of Arizona. In fact, the game is still played in parts of Mexico. Today the rules are similar to those of volleyball, but played without a net.