The cultural richness of the territory now occupied by Oaxaca dates back thousands of years, whose testimonies can be seen in one of the most conspicuous constructions of Mesoamerican archeology: the ball game, which has great cultural and historical value, as it is considered a legacy of the pre-Hispanic era, which persists in indigenous communities of the Mixteca, as well as groups of migrants settled in the part of the United States and Canada.

The ball game was not a sport but a ritual of great religious and political transcendence, which was practiced in space, known as a court, delimited by two elongated platforms made with a slope and a sidewalk -generally parallel-, at whose ends were placed less large elevations, sometimes composed of mounds.

They were built in a sunken manner so that the community could see the ritual from different points; they have markers consisting of circular stone blocks in the form of rings (sometimes hollow in the middle) or sculptures of snakeheads.

The dynamics of the game was carried out as part of the ascent of a ruler to power, of a military victory, or in the celebration of some dates related to the agricultural calendar, and consisted of passing a rubber ball from one place to another, hitting it with the elbows and hips.

There is ample archaeological and documentary evidence on the shape of the ball courts, as in the case of the codices of the Mixtec region, where they are represented pictorially, as well as in stone reliefs with their different variants, such as the stela of Tetlama, in Morelos, where it is seen in the form of a zigzag.

Another representation of the courts is in the form of a floor plan, which we can see in the Mixtec codex Colombino-Becker, from Tututepec, where the court is shown in the form of a capital Latin 'i', a characteristic design of these spaces in Mesoamerica.

Usually, the ball game is located in the area near the ceremonial center of the communities, along with the temples and palaces, because it occupied an important space in the ritual and festive activities of the communities.

Of the 4,518 archaeological sites registered in Oaxaca, less than five percent have a ball court. In 2019, archaeologists Jeffrey Blomster and Víctor Salazar Chávez, from George Washington University, United States, published an article highlighting that one of the oldest ball games in Mesoamerica is in the Mixteca, in the community of Etlatongo, and dates back to 1374 BC.

In the sub-region of the Mixteca de la Costa, in the Malinaltepec River, located between Puerto Escondido and Tututepec, several archaeological sites have been registered, and in the so-called Malinantepec II, archaeologist Ángel Iván Rivera documented a ball game court and engraved monuments that delimit it, which date from the Classic period (400-600 A.D.).

Meanwhile, in the Mixteca Alta, at the site of Yucuñudahui, near Nochixtlán, an "i" shaped court was located in the nuclear area, around the large buildings and foundations that make up the archaeological site, which also dates from the Classic period.

In the Mixteca Baja, in San Pedro and San Pablo Tequixtepec, several archaeological sites are registered, and several of them have these ritual spaces, for example, in the center of the monumental complex of Cerro del Zacate Amarillo; and like other heritage areas of the subregion, they are on top of hills.

In the Cerro de las Minas, in Huajuapan, the court is on the hillside adjacent to one of the mounds, in the cradle of the contiguous terraces of the high platforms of the site. There a sculpture in red stone was found, which represents a character with crossed arms and a calendrical glyph in the abdomen that, possibly, alludes to its name, in addition, it has a great band in the hip, a characteristic element of the ballplayers.

Currently, this ancestral activity is practiced in communities of the Mixteca, such as Tezoatlán, Jaltepec, Nochixtlán, Tlacotepec, among others, where various associations of groups of players were created to hold tournaments at the local and regional level. Many Mixtec migrants living in California, Oregon, or Washington, including Canada, have brought this ancient practice to those territories. In Mexico City, particularly in Iztapalapa, there are places where this activity is carried out.

The Pok ta Pok game
The Pok ta Pok game was an important part of the ancient Mayan culture. Photo: Facebook/Estampas de México

Ancient Mayan ball game tournament is revived in Mexico

In the country, there are different independent groups dedicated to the "Pok Ta Pok". More and more young people are adopting this sport to connect with their pre-Hispanic roots. The municipality of Umán, in the state of Yucatán, has decided to promote the practice of the ball game to rescue the Mayan culture and support young people, instilling pride in their origins.

Mayan ball game
Mayan ball game

The game of "Pok Ta Pok" was a fundamental part of the classic Mayan culture; in Yucatan vestiges of its practice and playgrounds have been found in several places, such as Chichen Itzá. The story goes that for the ancient Maya it was a power game between tribes. Teams of up to five players were formed and losers were sacrificed. In the municipality of Umán, this tradition is being rescued, which is why the "Pok Ta Pok" school has been created for young people aged 12 and over.

Mayan ball game
Mayan ball game

There are two schools in the state constituted and registered with the Mexican Federation of Autochthonous Games and Sports and Traditions A.C. The first was created in Tahdzibichén and has about 10 and 15 members. The second, more recently created, is the municipality of Umán, which currently has 5 students between the ages of 17 and 20.

Mayan ball game
Mayan ball game

Throughout the peninsula, there are different independent groups due to the rise of the "Pok Ta Pok", participating in different representations in the municipalities. The game consists of passing a ball through stone hoops located on the sides of the court, hitting it only with the hips. In ancient times there were games that lasted up to three days. Today, however, they do not last that long.

Mayan ball game
Mayan ball game