Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Take Me Out to the Mesoamerican Ballgame

Medicine balls are fun to heave against a wall (note: not really), but what else can you do with a heavy ball?

Well, we could always try to revive the ancient Mesoamerican game of "pitz" (as it was known to Mayans). It is, after all, the first team sport in human history.

The precise rules of the game -- which was first played over three thousand years ago -- are lost to history, but evidence suggests that pitz was similar to volleyball – using rubber balls of different size -- and weighing 9 pounds or more. Two teams consisting of 2 to 4 players each would face off on a walled ballcourt, using their hips, forearms, racquets and bats to try to keep the ball in play. Points were scored by striking the opposing team’s wall with the ball -- but teams could be penalized if they allowed the ball to touch the ground more than once.

Later variations of the game included a stone ring mounted high up on the side of the court; a team could win the game outright by getting the ball through the ring. By 300 B.C., pitz was being played throughout much of what is now Mexico.

Sounds fun, right?

Unfortunately, there were some downsides.

The game was brutal, and injuries inflicted by the heavy ball were severe. Five hundred years ago, Spanish historian Diego DurĂ¡n reported that some bruises were so severe that they had to be lanced open. He also reported that players were even killed when the ball "hit them in the mouth or the stomach or the intestines".

Plus: Losers got beheaded.

In the Mayan version of the game, it appears that the captain of the losing team -- and possibly other players, too -- would be decapitated following a loss. And with the Aztec version of pitz, the skulls of losing team members were placed in a “skull rack” next to the court -- and some have suggested that the severed heads were occasionally put in play as balls.

When I count my blessings, I often forget to be thankful for the fact that I'm not an ancient Mesoamerican athlete. My cortisol levels would be through the roof. Also: For practicing wallball shots, Dynamax medicine balls are much easier to grip than bloody heads.