According to historians, Meso-American ball games have been around since 3000 BC. The earliest discovered playing court is in Paso de la Amada, Mexico and dates back to 1600 BC. The Paso de la Amada court was refurbished and expanded over a period of 150 years. From images on murals and pottery, archaeologists believe that the Mayans played a game called pok-ta-pok which is the predecessor of the Aztec version ōllamalitzli, documented by Spanish conquistadors in 1519 AD.
The playing court is shaped like the capital “I”. Two sloping parallel walls were inset with three round disks (later courts had just a single stone ring), at right angles to the ground. Players scored by hitting the disks or passing the ball through the ring. The disks were located up to 9 meters above ground. Players could only strike the small rubber ball (10-15 cm in diameter) with their elbows, knees or hips.
Researchers believe that games like pok-ta-pok were an integral part to the political, religious, and social life. The actual games may have ranged from simple recreation to higher stakes where the losing team captains were beheaded while the winners attained hero-like status. In Olmec times (about 1200 BC) kings were often depicted as ball players, wearing leather helmets. “They may have been helmets for warriors or athletes or both,” says a respected anthropology professor. “In ancient times the distinctions between a great player, a great warrior, and a great leader may not have been that great”.