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Ancient ballcourt in Mexico shows sport much older than thought

Ceramic figures of athletes were found in the Mexican highlands near a ballcourt that researchers say demands revisions to the suspected origins of the sport. Photo by Jeffrey Blomster & Victor E. Salazar Chavez/George Washington University
Ceramic figures of athletes were found in the Mexican highlands near a ballcourt that researchers say demands revisions to the suspected origins of the sport. Photo by Jeffrey Blomster & Victor E. Salazar Chavez/George Washington University

March 16 (UPI) -- New evidence shows that a ball sport was played in Mexico's highlands in 1374 B.C., earlier than previously thought, according to researchers.

A ballcourt found in Chiapas, Mexico, dates to 1650 B.C. and is the oldest found in the lowlands, but researchers from George Washington University found one in the Mexican highlands, in the Mixtec region of Oaxaca state, dating to 1374 B.C.

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The finding suggests a reexamination of the origin of the sport is now required, write lead researchers Jeffrey P. Blomster and Victor E. Salazar Chavez in a study published this month in Science Advances.

A sport based on the movement of a ball is part of ancient Mesoamerican culture, with fields of play known as "ballcourts" found in the lowlands Mexico and Central America.

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Until the discovery, it was assumed the game was refined in the lowlands before it became popular in mountainous areas of Mexico. A ball used in the game and commonly found by researchers is made of rubber from trees only grown in the Mexican lowlands.

At least 2,300 permanent ballcourts have been discovered by archeologists, many surrounded by statues indicating the sport's importance in local culture. While variants of the game have been found across Mesoamerica, the field of play typically involves two parallel walls and a ball, which is hit with players' hips and not hands.

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It is significant that space in communities was reserved for playing the game, researchers say. The ballcourts are generally a part of the local architecture and designed with attention to accuracy.

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Until now, archeologists believed that the game only entered the highlands after the lowlands populations essentially refined and popularized the game. The new research also reinforces the assumption that the ballcourts were used not only for sport but as a focus for community politics and rituals.

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