Students of the Game | People & Places | Smithsonian
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Students of the Game

When the Aztec and Maya played it 500 to 1,000 years ago, the losers sometimes lost their heads—literally. Today scholars are visiting remote Mexican villages to study the oldest sport in the Americas, ulama, now on the verge of extinction

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“¡Déjamelo!” Jesús “Chuy” Páez shouts. “Leave it for me!” The nine-pound black rubber ball arcs high in the late-afternoon Mexican sky. Páez’s teammates scatter, fanning out diagonally to defend their end zone. With a running leap, Páez throws his deerskin-padded hip into the ball, connecting with a punishing thud and launching the ball fast and low across the hard-packed dirt court’s centerline.

“Your turn, old man!” Páez says as Fito Lizárraga, a youthful 56-year-old, prepares to return the ball. Bracing himself on the ground with one hand, Lizárraga pivots his hip to strike the ball low and sends it skidding back through the dirt. Lizárraga’s teammates close in fast behind him as players from both teams take turns flinging themselves to the ground, and the ball ricochets between hips like an oversize pinball. Then, with a dive worthy of New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, Páez knocks the ball past Lizárraga and his teammates, sending it crashing into a chain-link fence at the end of the court.

On the sidelines, the 30 or so Los Llanitos hometown spectators erupt in cheers—a point scored in another Sunday afternoon pickup game of America’s oldest sport, ulama (from the Aztec’s word for it, ullamaliztli). Archaeologists say that communities from the jungles of Honduras to the deserts of northern Mexico have been playing versions of it for the past 3,500 years. Against all odds, this ancient game survived the rise and fall of the Olmec, Maya and Aztec civilizations, not to mention the devastation wrought by the Spanish Conquest.

Yet today ulama faces extinction. The players’ relative poverty and geographic isolation, a lack of natural rubber and competition from newer sports such as volleyball and baseball have driven it to the brink. The threat has brought together an odd coalition of academics, athletes and local businessmen trying to preserve it and study it for clues to how the ancient Mesoamericans lived.

Two professors at California State University at Los Angeles—archaeologist James Brady and art historian Manuel Aguilar—together with their students, form the Ulama Project. They seem unlikely sports fans. “For years, we archaeologists were stuck in a major rut,” says Brady.

“We’d go out, dig up an ancient ball court, date it and publish an article about it. But we rarely learned anything interesting or new about the game.” Brady and Sergio Garza, his graduate student at the University of California at Riverside, specialize in ancient Maya caves; even by day they sport flashlights on their belts, as if a dark, unexplored crevice might present itself at any moment. For Brady, ulama represents an opportunity to conduct what’s called ethnoarchaeology: by studying the modern game, he and his colleagues hope to better understand its past. “For so long,” he says, “archaeology had ball courts without people in them. By recording the game as it’s played today, we’re putting the sport, the enjoyment and the competition back into the ball court.”

The hour-and-a-half drive from the beach resort of Mazatlán to Los Llanitos (pop. 151) begins on a jammed coastal highway lined with fast-food joints and high-rise hotels and ends on a bone-jarring dirt road winding through withered cornfields. Just past a church and a corral packed with cattle, Brady, Garza and I pull up to the tin-roofed home of 28-year-old farmer Chuy Páez. Tan, trim and wearing buffed cowboy boots and a large silver belt buckle, Páez steps over a dog sleeping in the shade of the porch and extends a hearty welcome.

Inside his concrete-floor bedroom is Páez’s personal Wall of Fame. In one photograph, he’s captured in midair, arms out and hip thrust forward, just seconds after striking the ball. In another, Páez’s 11-year-old son, Chuyito, poses proudly in his deerskin loincloth, holding a ball that looks to be nearly half his size. As we tour the gallery, Páez reaches up into the rafters and unties a rubber ball from a hanging neckerchief. Then, leading us back outside, he positions me in one corner of the porch and walks ten feet to the opposite corner.

“¿Listo?” he asks with a grin. “Ready?” I nod tentatively. He bounces the ball—a little smaller than a bowling ball—across the patio floor. As I reach out to catch it, the nine-pound spheroid smashes through my hands and into my chest, almost knocking me to the ground. Brady laughs, having warned me of the weight. “See what I mean?”

For Brady, as for me, just absorbing the ball’s impact for the first time was a revelation. Sure, he’d read in the writings of Diego Durán, a 16th-century Spanish friar, of the physical abuse endured by Aztec ballplayers, who “got their haunches so mangled that they had those places cut with a small knife and extracted blood which the blows of the ball had gathered.” And though I’d written a 300-page doctoral dissertation on ulama, I had never before felt the blow of a ball against my hip. “It’s one of those things you can read about all you want,” says Brady, “but until you feel it for yourself and have the bruise to show for it, it’s meaningless.”

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