When Spanish conquistador Fernando Cortéz returned to Europe with news of all the glories of the New World in 1528, he brought with him a group of Mayan athletes. The Spanish court marveled at the exotic ball game Mayans played. Spanish courtiers were particularly interested in the strange bouncing ball. The Mayans used a rubber ball similar to today's medicine balls. In fact, the ancient rubber ball inspired the manufacturers of soccer balls, basketballs, and tennis balls used today.

The game took place on a long narrow court with high walls. Three markers, such as this one, were spaced evenly along the walls. Players worked against gravity, using lower legs, thighs, torsos, and upper arms to hit the ball up at the markers. The difficulty of the game made for slow scoring, and many ended with only one point scored.

The Mayan game was an essential element to Mayan society, and courts were placed in the heart of the city. As with the United States' love of baseball, the Mayans played for pleasure and to demonstrate skill. Spectators took part in gambling and teams played aggressively. Despite the similarities, the ancient Mayan game possessed a much darker side. Players of the Mayan ball game played for their lives.

The game also held religious significance. Players symbolized death and rebirth. The captain of the losing team, often a high-ranking warrior, was sacrificed. Sometimes the loser's decapitated head was used as a ball.

Center Marker from Ball Court,
900/1299 CE
Unidentified Maker
(Mayan People), Mexico

Rhyolitic volcanic stone
10 inches H
Gift of the Alconda-Owsley Foundation

World Events

900 CE Mayan civilization collapses.

1271 Marco Polo travels to China.

1325 The Aztec civilization founds Tenochtitlan, modern day Mexico City.

1438 The Incan empire in Peru begins.

1492 Columbus discovers America.


"Pre-Columbian" refers to the period before Columbus landed in the Americas and the subsequent spread of European influence on the North, Central, and South American peoples. Art held significant importance in these tribal societies. The makers believed the objects they made had the power to appease the gods and save their tribes from disaster.


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