Ancient Mayans Turned Rulers Into Rubber Balls

Ancient Mayans appear to have cremated their rulers and used their ashes to create rubber balls for playing sports, according to an archaeologist at Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History.

What to know:

  • Studies of grease markings in the walls of a centuries-old tomb discovered in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca indicate that the bodies of the Mayan elite were cremated, and their ashes used to harden rubber balls for use in a popular game.

  • Rubber balls were used in an ancient Mesoamerican sport known as pitz or pok-a-tok, in which players were not allowed to touch the ball with their hands but hit it with their elbows, knees, or hips.

  • Although several different types of the game were played by the Olmecs, the Maya, and the Aztecs, the best-known version was contested by two teams using a rubber ball on a monumental stone court shaped like a capital I.

  • A 1300-year-old crypt beneath a pyramid called the Temple of the Sun in Toniná has revealed the remains of about 400 vessels containing organic materials, including ash, charcoal, and natural rubber.

  • Excavations at the highland site of Etlatongo in Oaxaca have uncovered two ball courts, as well as ballplayer figurines, suggesting that highland societies were playing the ball game almost as early as 1443 BC, making it older than previous sites found near the Gulf Coast and in the Pacific coastal lowlands, where it had been believed that the game had originated.

This is a summary of the article “Play Ball!” published by the Archeology institute of America on August 2, 2022. The full article can be found on

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