Ball courts at Xochicalco. These rings would hang from the sides of the court.
Ball courts at Xochicalco. These rings would hang from the sides of the court. Rae Wilson

In this game, winning means you're sacrificed

THE hoops are high and the hole is on the side.

The seven-a-side teams use a solid bouncy ball made from strips of vulcanised rubber wrapped around a central core - likely a round stone.

The vulcanised rubber - which was used as far back as 1500 BC but would not be rediscovered until the 1860s in the United States - would be wrapped around until it was a bit larger than a softball but not as large as a cantaloupe.

Sometimes the players would compete for days trying to get the ball through.

But the game is varied at every ancient site - from slight alterations to vastly different premises.

For example, in Tikal in Guatemala, only two people play - having trained since birth for the honour of being sacrificed after winning the game.

The loser would live with shame for the rest of his life.

At Chichen Itza in Mexico's Yucatan peninsula, there are even stone carvings along the edge of the court depicting some of the 14 players, including the sacrificed winner.

There are three ball courts among the ruins at Xochicalco, just south of Mexico City; two enormous areas and one smaller one.

Our Xocicalco guide Charlie Goff, who writes the blog Charlie's Digs, asked us to picture high-ranking priests and nobles sitting right on the edge with their legs hanging over the side.

We should imagine others standing behind them watching the game being played down the middle of the court in front of them.

In Xochicalo, the players were allowed to hit the ball with all body parts except their hands and feet.

Getting the ball through the ring was the grandest of points but just one of the many ways they could score.

They could score points hitting the ball against the ring and having it bounce back, hitting the ball against markers along the court and parrot head markers at each end.

They could keep the ball away from the other team or keep it in their end of the court to score points.

Charlie said the wise priests sitting along the edge could interpret every move as a conversation with their gods.

"I'd like you to think of a ball game as a place where two groups of seven players were allowing themselves to be influenced by the gods and score points in a way in which the priests would be able to interpret the scoring of the points as a conversation between those two gods who were willing to share their conversation and let priests eavesdrop on them," he said.

"Imagine how much information you could gather just by listening.

"Sometimes the games would go on without the ball ever going through the ring and that was fine. It was the conversation that was important."

But the people watching behind the priests were watching it as a spectator sport.

The Spaniards who saw these games shortly after the Mexican conquest described in a journal how there was a lot of betting, with bets paid off after each point was scored.

"You weren't totalling up the points in the game and playing for a certain amount of time and have that determine who won and who lost," Charlie said.

"People were paying off their debts much in the way you do at a craps table at a casino, roll the dice and pay your money, roll the dice again and pay your money.

"And at the end, when you walk away from the table, you know if you have been a winner or a loser.

"The Spaniards say it wasn't just chocolate beans, jewellery and trinkets - they say they saw people betting their whole harvests, betting their families into slavery and their houses.

"There were tremendous sums of wealth transferred at the ball game according to the Spaniards."

While people were often sacrificed at the end of a ball game, it's widely believed the person volunteered to have that honour or knew winning would result in that honour.

Think I'll stick with that seven-a-side game of netball - seems slightly safer.