The ancient game of pelota held immense significance for Mesoamerican cultures, intricately intertwined with life, death, and the divine. Recent excavations at the Toniná archaeological site in southern Mexico have revealed a stunning discovery that sheds new light on the burial customs of the ancient Maya civilization. Archaeologists studying the ruins of a Maya Sun Temple unearthed 400 urns, hidden in an underground crypt beneath the temple, containing a mixture of human ashes, coal, rubber, and plant roots.
This remarkable find has led to a captivating theory that introduces a fascinating twist to our understanding of the Maya’s funerary practices. It is believed that esteemed Maya rulers were incinerated and their ashes transformed into rubber balls for use in the game of pelota. This theory emerged after archaeologist Juan Yadeun Angulo meticulously analyzed stone carvings at various significant locations within a well-preserved sunken ball court.
The court, where the game of pelota was played, served as a hub for this ancient Mesoamerican team sport. The stone carvings, examined by Angulo, depicted three rulers who perished between 722 and 776 C.E. These rulers were then transported to the “cave of the dead” for a process Angulo refers to as “transmutation.”
Angulo proposes that the underground crypt was employed for the cremation of bodies in a religious ritual. Subsequently, the resulting ashes were combined with organic materials, such as rubber and plant roots, to produce the large, weighty rubber balls utilized in pelota. These balls were colossal during the Classic Period, as affirmed by Angulo.
The Maya civilization seemingly sought to imbue their rulers’ remains with a renewed life force, aiming to inspire and invigorate their people. Angulo draws a parallel between this practice and the Egyptian preservation techniques, highlighting that the Maya employed a distinct transformative approach.
Collaborating with Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History, Angulo’s team has been meticulously studying the crypt. Further evidence from another archaeological site in Chiapas sheds light on the immense size of the pelota balls. A carved stone disc discovered there portrays the ball as nearly the same size as a human, with a player propelling it using their hips.
Ancient Maya artwork often portrays pelota players adorned with layers of protective padding, particularly around their midsection. Some players even wore kneepads and hand mitts. While pelota was undoubtedly a form of entertainment and sport, researchers believe it held profound symbolic and spiritual significance for the ancient Mesoamerican cultures. The ball’s movement across the court symbolized the journey of the sun across the sky.
Surviving texts from Maya regions indicate that the ballgame served as a platform for mythological battles between the forces of life and death. Paintings and stone carvings depict rulers dressed as gods, reenacting these mythical conflicts. The ball courts themselves held symbolic importance, often seen as a connection to the Underworld. Carved stone panels found at sites like Chichén Itzá and El Tajín portray individuals being sacrificed and decapitated on the court.
One such carving displays a player kneeling on the court, his head separated from his body, with serpents and vegetation sprouting from his neck. This imagery underscores the regenerative and nourishing power attributed to sacrificial blood, as described by The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The close association between ballgames and sacrificial rituals is also evident in the Popol Vu, an ancient Ki’che Maya creation myth in which two brothers compete against the Lords of Xibalba, the Underworld, in a pelota match.
The recent discovery at the Toniná archaeological site offers a profound glimpse into the historical, spiritual, and anthropological significance of one of the world’s oldest games. It deepens our understanding of the Maya civilization’s complex belief systems and rituals surrounding death, power, and the metaphysical.