Mayan ballgames were played on blessed grounds

Archaeologists have uncovered the oldest evidence of ceremonial offerings on sportsgrounds by the ancient Maya in Mexico.

Environmental DNA (eDNA) analysis shows that the courts built by the Mayans for their ballgames were blessed. In research published in PLOS ONE, the researchers identified a collection of plants used in ceremonial rituals.

The study was based at the ancient Maya city of Yaxnohcah near the Guatemalan border.

Among the plants were those with psychoactive properties. They were found in a ritual deposit which dates to about 2,000 years ago.

One of the plants, a type of morning glory called xtabentun, is a known hallucinogen. They also found evidence of chili peppers.

“We think of chili as a spice. But it was much more than that for the ancient Maya,” explains first author David Lentz, a professor at the University of Cincinnati (UC), US. “It was a healing plant used in many ceremonies.”

Professor holds ancient mayan sculpture
UC Professor David Lentz holds up a sculpture that bears reproductions of ancient Maya glyphs. Credit: Andrew Higley/UC Marketing + Brand

Researchers also identified the tree Hampea trilobata or jool. Its leaves were used by Mayans to wrap food bundles for ceremonies. They also wove food baskets from twine made from its bark and it was used to treat snake bites. They also found DNA of lancewood, Oxandra lanceolata which has oily leaves used as an anaesthetic and antibiotic agent.

“I think the fact that these four plants, which have a known cultural importance to the Maya, were found in a concentrated sample tells us it was an intentional and purposeful collection under this platform,” says Eric Tepe, also a professor at UC.

The researchers suggest that the ceremony took place before the ballcourt was built.

“When they erected a new building, they asked the goodwill of the gods to protect the people inhabiting it,” says Lentz. “Some people call it an ‘ensouling ritual,’ to get a blessing from and appease the gods.”

Ancient Mayan ballgames included pok-a-tok which is like a mix between football and basketball.

“But not all of the ballcourts had hoops,” Lentz says. “We think of ballcourts today as a place of entertainment. It wasn’t that way for the ancient Maya.”

These ballcourts held “prime real estate” in the city centre, Lentz explains.

Before being a ball court, the site was a humble residential structure built on bedrock.

“Over time, important family members were buried within expanding platforms, imbuing these places with power. The Maya practiced ancestor worship,” explains co-author Nicholas Dunning, also from the University of Cincinnati.

Ceremonial offerings were used to bless sites when buildings were expanded or repurposed. This can include ceramics or jewellery.

“We have known for years from ethnohistorical sources that the Maya also used perishable materials in these offerings, but it is almost impossible to find them archaeologically, which is what makes this discovery using eDNA so extraordinary,” Dunning says.

Sign up to our weekly newsletter

Please login to favourite this article.