Ulama game

From Academic Kids

Ulama is a ball game played in Latin America, a variety of the Mesoamerican ballgame descended from an Aztec game ritual. The game is one of the oldest sports in the world that is still played (wrestling, for example, is even older).


The word Ulama comes from the Nahuatl word ullamaliztli ("ballgame"). In its heyday in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, ulama was played by the Olmecs (the probable inventors), Aztecs, Mixtecs and Maya in an area extending from modern-day Mexico to El Salvador and possibly in modern-day Arizona and New Mexico. Archeologists have uncovered 700 ball courts, rubber balls that have been dated as far back as 1500 BC and figurines recognizable as ulama players dating from c. AD 400.

Ulama playing fields (Aztec tlachtli) were build in city centers near the temples. The long oblong fields – like the one at Monte Albán – have a wider part at each end and banked or vertical stone walls.

Although archeologists and historians disagree on specifics, the game had mythical and religious significance. According to the Popol Vuh, the Mayan hero twins were summoned to Xibalba, the Mayan underworld, where they won a game against the lords of death and resurrected their father and uncle who became the maize god.

The Aztecs brought their prisoners to their cities, let them grow famished, and finally compelled them to partake in a match of ulama. Weakened prisoners usually lost and were decapitated. The northern Aztec province of Tochtepec was taxed for 16,000 rubber balls a year – although not all the rubber was necessarily used for ballgames. Historians assume that Spanish Catholics suppressed the game as a pagan practice.

Modern-day ulama

The modern forms have some following in the Mexican state of Sinaloa on the Mexican west coast. Beyond its players, it seems to interest mainly archeologists and historians who study it to draw conclusions about the nature of the original game.

The game has three main forms: most common is ulama de cadera or hip ulama; ulama de antebrazo, where predominantly female players on three-player teams hit a smaller ball with their forearms; and ulama de palo or de mazo, which is played with a wooden bat. According to historians, hip ulama is the form closest to the original ballgame.

Hip ulama is played with two five-man teams that are only permitted to bounce the ball with their hips after the first throw. The modern form uses knitted loincloths and rubber balls that weighs about 4 kg (9 lb). The court is about 50 m (165 ft) long and 4 m (13 ft) wide and is divided by a central line separating the two teams.

The object of the game is to keep the ball in play and in bounds. Depending on the score – and the local variant of the rules – the ball is played either high or low. A team scores a point when a player of the opposing team hits the ball out of turn; misses the ball; knocks the ball out of bounds; touches the ball with their hands or some other body part aside from the hip; accidentally touches a teammate; lets the ball stop moving before it reaches the center line or even if they fail to announce the score after they have scored a point.

The team that first scores eight points wins. Keeping score is a rather complicated process; the score can jump directly from one point to three points, for example. If both teams end up having the same number of points after a turn, both sides begin again from zero. One record-setting game reputedly lasted for eight days but most modern games are stopped after about two hours.

Modern ulama balls are made with a technique that is probably reminiscent of the original one; rubber sap is boiled with other ingredients to help vulcanize it and make it less sticky. This technique also makes them hard to come by.

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