Soccer is by far the world’s most popular sport, and for good reason—beloved by at least 265 million people worldwide, it’s easy to play in a random yard or field and instantly relate to the players racing across stadiums like the ones in Russia hosting this year’s World Cup.
But if you’re looking for the earliest ancestor of all that running, kicking, and cooperating, be ready to turn back your watch, spin your globe—and make sure not to literally lose your head.
The Chinese were the first to get their kicks by kicking balls into nets for sport in the third century B.C., and the game known globally as football was formalized in England in the 19th century. But the predecessor of most modern ball games as we play them today can be found in the Americas.
“The idea of the team sport was invented in Mesoamerica,” says Mary Miller, a professor of the history of art at Yale University who has studied extensive evidence of the sport.
Bouncing Into History
In Mesoamerica, the vast historical region spanning from Mexico to Costa Rica, civilizations flourished well before Columbus “discovered” them, and many of these people played a sport that involved a heavy ball made from a substance derived from tree resin.
It’s unclear exactly where the game was invented, but it was popular across Mesoamerican cultures like the Teotihuacanos, Aztecs, and Maya beginning about 3,000 years ago. Its name varied—ullamaliztli in Aztec, pok-ta-pok or pitz in Maya—and so did its rules, which included moves such as keeping the ball in play by bumping it with body parts or using racquets or bats.
These ancient civilizations perfected the process for making the rubber balls millennia before modern vulcanized rubber came into being.
“People were probably making rubber balls by the thousands,” says Miller. The balls were hollow, she adds, but they weighed up to 16 pounds each.
The balls seem to have been almost ubiquitous in the cultures that valued them, and many still exist in the archaeological record. Other evidence of game play ranges from ceramic vessels to more than 1,300 stone courts that are spread across the region, each with room for plenty of spectators.
The historical record holds evidence, too, in the form of colonial-era writings by Diego Durán, a Dominican priest whose eyewitness accounts of Aztec life include a description of the ballgame as it was played in 1585.
Aztec players bounced the ball back and forth between teams using only their hips and buttocks (feet or hands were off limits). They tried to bounce it over a center line and hit the back wall of their opponents’ courts with just one bounce, often sustaining life-threatening injuries when they were hit with the hard, heavy ball.
If a player managed to get it into a high ring on the opposing team’s side, it was an automatic win.
The game’s winner, wrote Durán, “was honored as a man who had vanquished many and had won a battle.”
Though it was played as an everyday pickup sport, much like soccer or basketball, this ball game also held a sacred place in religion and warfare for Mesoamerican cultures. Aztec kings reportedly played it as a substitute for war, gaining ruling rights or diffusing diplomatic dramas with a game of ball.
In Maya and Veracruz cultures, the stakes were even higher: The losers of some ritual games were sacrificed.
The specifics are unclear, but some courts are decorated with panels depicting the gory sacrifice of losing players. Sacrifice and sport are closely related in a Maya creation myth, too: It shows a pair of ball-playing twins defeating the lords of the underworld on the court. They go on to become the sun and the moon.
The Maya “confront[ed] the deities on a daily basis in a game of ball,” says Miller. “There’s a central element of conflict between humans and deities.”
Despite evidence that the losers sometimes got the literal axe, says Miller, some 20th-century archaeologists refused to believe that anyone except the winners were killed. She chalks it up to an eagerness on their part to depict the Maya as exceptional, not warlike.
“They couldn’t believe that the Maya committed human sacrifice,” she said. “We now know that’s absolute hooey, and so is the notion that any victorious player would be sacrificed.” In Maya mythology, the loser of the ball game is decapitated, and today’s scholars widely accept that losers, not winners, got the chop.
Questions remain about how the game was played, and how the gruesome rite that awaited some of its losers worked. But its spirit, which Miller calls one of “intricate team thinking,” is alive and well both in modern incarnations of the ball game and the millions of players who run, weave, and kick their way down an official or makeshift soccer pitch every day.