The Team Sport That Ended in Beheadings

The Team Sport That Ended in Beheadings

By Taylor Mayol


Because not all team sports end with handshakes.

By Taylor Mayol

Diego de Landa destroyed dozens of Mayan books and thousands of their images and statues because he thought the natives of Mesoamerica were engaging in satanic behavior. But this got the 16th-century Spanish explorer in big trouble with the monarchy, and he was called home to answer for his actions. Part of his excuse? The Maya played a ball game that ended in human sacrifice. 

Considered by some to be the first team sport played by humans, pok-ta-pok is a game with ancient roots. It likely originated during the Olmec period between 2000 and 1500 B.C. At the very least, historians are certain that it was played between A.D. 200 and 900 — the peak of Mayan architecture and society, and when Chichén Itzá, site of the largest pok-ta-pok court in both size and significance on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, was built. 

“There’s not a pro athlete in the world who could play that game …” Any takers?

Joshua Mark, editor of Ancient History Encyclopedia

Sometimes a religious ceremony, sometimes a sporting event, the games were orchestrated battles between captured prisoners, pitting two teams of a few players against one another with the goal of getting a small rubber ball — ancient Mesoamericans were the first to invent rubber balls — through a 20-foot-high stone hoop. The game was extremely violent and fast; Landa himself likened it to watching lightning strike. Players couldn’t use their hands or feet, leaving the heavy lifting to their hips, shoulders, arms and heads. And the stakes were high: Sometimes they died from “bleeding bruises,” thanks to the hard ball, writes James A. Fox, a Stanford anthropologist who curated a former exhibit of Mayan ball games at the Stanford Museum of Art, in an email to OZY. Even worse, one side was beheaded as a sacrifice to the gods. 

Landa’s written justification for his actions to the Spanish regime provides us with much of our information about the sport, along with stone engravings and a handful of glyphs and books that survived his rampage. Plus, there’s the existence of nearly 1,200 courts identified by archaeologists. While most historians believe the losers were the ones to lose their heads, some argue it was the victors who died, pointing to certain engraved images and beliefs about the afterlife. But this is fiercely contested. We know there were “star players and star teams,” says Joshua Mark, editor of Ancient History Encyclopedia, so if they kept winning matches and continued performing in front of Mayan leaders, then it seems fair to assume the losers were the ones being decapitated. In their book The Code of Kings: The Language of Seven Sacred Maya Temples andTombs, Linda Schele and Peter Mathews call the idea that winners were sacrificed a “myth” with “no evidence … in any of the ancient historical sources.” 

Either way, it’s important to note that dying postmatch was like a fast pass to paradise for the Maya, who, according to their beliefs, faced an arduous trek to heaven. The journey included a stint in the “horrifying” underworld of Xibalba, where they had to find and climb the tree of life, explains Mark. The only way to bypass the darkness? Dying in childbirth, suicide or — you guessed it — pok-ta-pok. So whether it was death by success or by loss, it was a golden ticket to the big temple in the sky. 

Spaniards took inspiration from the “heavy and very elastic” ball that Fox describes as “essentially solid, made of rubber latex … boiled and treated with various other ingredients.” The Europeans, he writes, “combined their concept of inflated balls (usually leather-enclosed animal bladders) with the newly discovered rubber.” And, voilà, modern-day sports balls were born.

Though we might not know all of the details about the complex sport of pok-ta-pok, we do know that other versions were also played by other Mesoamerican peoples, like the Aztecs and the Tarascans. And Mark poses a challenge: “There’s not a pro athlete in the world who could play that game the way Landa described it.” Any takers?