The Aztecs called it ullamaliztli, but the game is older than the Aztecs. Adopted by the Mayans and likely pioneered by the Olmec, today’s historians, in a stroke of un-inspiration, call it the Mesoamerican Ball Game. The game was a blood sport: a brutal contest where two teams kept a ten-pound rubber ball in play with only their hips and elbows (or, if they were lucky, a wooden racket). Sportsmen would suffer such heavy bruises that many, according to Spanish explorers, had to have said bruises drained to prevent infection. (Wikipedia, 2013) Plays within single games could last hours, and in later incarnations the game only ended when one team hit the ball through a narrow stone ring on the opposite end of the court. (Aztec-History.com, 2012)
In a tweet, which in retrospect I did not explain well, I saw a similarity between this game and the fictional magical sport of Quiddich. Though ullamaliztli has nothing to do with flying around on cleaning appliances, there are parallels. They are both savage on the body and constitution, and can be won either by the accumulation of points (by keeping the ball in play in ullamaliztli, through scoring goals in Quiddich) or through an insanely difficult instant win condition (the goal in the Aztec game, or the Snitch in Quiddich). Of course, the parallels end there: Hogwarts would not sacrifice the losing side, offer their hearts to the gods and place their skulls on display. It is this distinction which makes studying Mesoamerican history far more interesting than reading Harry Potter.
The sacrificial aspect receives a lot of attention in popular descriptions of the game, and the sport itself was indeed heavily entwined with society, religion, politics and human sacrifice. Though scholars are not all of one mind on the details, with some arguing that the winning side might have been the one sacrificed in many cases, historians agree that the game and death share an intimate relationship. (Wikipedia, 2013) In the mythology behind the game—especially the Mayan’s mythology—the ball court served as a place where the veil between the living world and the underworld thinned. (Reichard, 2009) The game itself was a ritual whose import exceeded that of today’s Olympics.
Today, human sacrifice leaves a bitter taste in our mouth. It is easy for Westerners to feel a combination of fear and contempt for the ancient Mayans, Aztecs and Olmec, wondering what barbarism led these people to kill their own to appease the gods. What we forget is that human sacrifice is a history we all share. All peoples sacrificed their own kind as offerings to the gods at some point in history, though most abandoned the practice in early antiquity. (Wikipedia, 2013) The stories in past and present religions which speak against human sacrifice—the sacrifice and rescue of Iphigeneia in the Trojan war and the binding of Isaac in the Old Testament—exist because the eschewing of human sacrifice was an innovation, not an orthodoxy. These stories justified a change in how societies worked, instead of enforcing the way things were always done. (Wikipedia, 2013)
Still, one wonders why sacrifice remained so prevalent in Mesoamerica. Perhaps the reason lies in one of the most important roles of ullamaliztli: to serve as a substitute for war.
War is costly. In the modern era, our wars can claim the lives of millions. Between the years of 1985 and 1994, war claimed the lives of378,000 people every year. If you were to apply that kind of death rate to the world population around 2000 BCE, humanity would go extinct in under a century. Fortunately, with a lower world population came a lower number of fatalities on account of war, but the cost was still immense in those times. Soldiers and commoners slaughtered, women raped, stores pillaged and homes razed. In war, we are cruel and wanton in our destruction.
The sacrifices of defeated ullamaliztli players seems humane in contrast. In an article published in the journal of the American Academy of Religion, author Joshua D. Reichard argues for the replacement of warfare as one of the major forces driving the adoption of the game, as well as the mythology behind it. Though the games were deadly, a deadly game is still far less devastating than a war. The convention permitted both the winning and losing sides to resolve matters with fewer deaths and without the ravages of total war. (Reichard, 1999)
With such advantages, one wonders why similar games did not catch on in Europe, Asia, or other parts of the world. I haven’t found any literature on that question, unfortunately. I personally suspect it may be due to the comparative poverty of resources in Central America versus Europe and Asia. In Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond asserts that several factors contribute to civilizations becoming more powerful and advanced. Food production is key, as it can support larger populations. These populations are necessary to support standing armies and carry out traditional warfare. With a sufficiently large population, a city-state or empire could weather the immense death toll of warfare. (Diamond, 1999)
But if Mesoamerica, on account of its small size and relative poverty of grain varieties (Diamond, 1999), could support enough people for a civilization but not enough to weather total war, then the ball game would be preferable to outright aggression as it would reduce the potentially lethal cost of waging war, as well as losing a war.
Another possibility could be that the absence of large, domesticated work animals was the key factor. Europe and Asia had cattle, oxen and horses, which could provide sustenance, plow fields and ease transportation. The Americas, on account of human hunting, had no comparable species remaining. (Diamond, 1999) This meant that the loss of an individual had a greater impact on the ability of a city-state to produce food, since more of the hard labor fell to people. In Europe and Asia, people were cheap. In Mesoamerica, this was likely not the case.
Of course, one might ask that if my suspicions are true, why did the Aztecs and Mayans practiced ritual sacrifice above and beyond the call of duty, if each individual life was of greater economic value? I would not know, although I suspect its familiarity kept it from becoming taboo. Nonetheless, I have yet to determine the academic consensus, and it may be that my suppositions are entirely off-base.