Mar 052010

Forget modern “traditions” like the World Series! Forget soccer, tennis and golf! By far the oldest ballgame in the Americas is the little known game of Ulama. Amazingly, this game is still played in some regions of Mexico, where it is believed to have originated more than 3000 years ago!

The precise rules of the ancient game are lost in the mists of antiquity, but three distinct forms of Ulama (using the hip, arm and a stick respectively) were played at the Mesoamerican ballgame (Ulama) Festival in Mazatlán in April 2002. The Festival was organized by the Mazatlán Historic Society, which was pushing for the game to be included in the “Intangible Heritage Category” of UNESCO’s World Heritage denominations. (As of March 2010, it had not yet made the list.)

The original ballgame, played by the Aztecs and other Nahuatl speaking peoples in Mexico at the time of the Spanish Conquest, was known as Ullamaliztli, a name deriving from ullama, which means the playing of a game with a ball, and ulli, rubber. Many archaeological sites in Mexico boast the ruins of one or more ballcourts where the game was played and hundreds of representations are known in Pre-Columbian art of ballgame players with their characteristic protective gear, some dating as far back as 1500 B.C. The protective padding was necessary because the solid rubber ball used in the game weighed five to eight pounds (2 – 3 kilos) and was propelled at speeds of up to 95 kph (60 mph). While most ballgame relics are of single players, one polished clay model found in the state of Nayarit actually depicts a game in progress.

Before you say “What a load of (old) balls!”, consider the fact that the ballgame has had profound consequences on sports all around the world. When the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés returned to Spain in 1528, he took with him ballplayers who demonstrated their skills at the court of King Charles V. The rubber ball they used amazed the Europeans as much as the game itself, since it bounced much more than the hair-stuffed leather balls in use at the time in Europe. The smuggling of the first rubber seeds out of Brazil led to rubber-tree plantations being established in Malaysia and rubber quickly became a world commodity, with the widespread uses we know today.

The research establishing the links between the relatively modern versions of Ulama, played in Sinaloa, and the pre-Columbian game of Ullamaliztli was carried out by Dr. Ted Leyenaar of the Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde in Leiden, Holland. Emphasizing the game’s immense historical importance, he says, “That the Mesoamerican ballgame has survived and flourished for more than 3000 years earns it the distinction of being one of humanity’s great cultural expressions”.

The details, meaning and significance of the game are explored more fully on the Mazatlán Historical Society’s webpages at, the main source for this article. The Society is hoping to set up the world’s first Ulama Museum and has begun collecting related artifacts.

“A load of old balls!”? – I don’t think so!

This is an edited version of an article originally published on MexConnect.

Click here for the complete article

“Indigenous peoples” is the title of chapter 10 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico and “Mexico’s cultural landscape” is the title of chapter 13.

Sports-related teaching idea:

  1. Map the locations of Mexico’s top fútbol (soccer) clubs.
  2. To what extent do these locations match a map of Mexico’s population density (Figure 8.2 in Geo-Mexico)?
  3. Does it appear that factors such as GDP/capita (Figure 14.3) or Mexico’s highway system (Figure 17.3) have also influenced where the top soccer clubs are located?
  4. Suggest what other factors may have influenced where Mexico’s soccer clubs are located.

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