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Play Ball!

Imagine a game that combines the ball and hoop of basketball, the protective pads and jarring contact of American football, and the no-hands policy of soccer.

This is the 3,000-year-old Maya ballgame of Pak-a-Tuk ("Juego de Pelota" in Spanish, "Uluma" in the indigenous Nuahtl language of Mexico). It is depicted in one form or another on thousands of artifacts, murals, and descriptive carved stelae found at archaeological sites.

Experts think the sport's primary purpose was ritualistic, or that it was a metaphor for the Maya dialectic cosmology. Perhaps it was just pure entertainment.

Other questions remain. Was it a game played by two nobles from different kingdoms, or by two teams of various numbers? Did the match last for hours or for days? And when the game was finally over, was the losing team sacrificed to the gods for its failure, or did the winning team lose their heads as a reward for pleasing the gods with their skill?

There are numerous ball courts to be found in Guatemala. They can be found at the archaeological sites of Cancuen, Nakbe, Naranjo, and Quiriguá. At Tikal, in the jungles of the Petén, there are seven, and several more are found throughout the rest of the country. Nearly every pre-Columbian city of any significant size appears to have had at least one, and more than 700 ball courts are found as far north as Arizona. The ball courts vary in size; some have open ends, while others have closed ends.

Despite the extensive findings by hundreds of archaeologists and the score of competing theories, there is no universal agreement as to the reasons, rules, regulation sizes, or results of this mysterious game.

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