Sports have long held the power to captivate crowds for much of history. The coming together of people and the passion that lives at sporting events can be borderline religious at some points.

This sentiment and rite of passage has been something the pre-conquest Indigenous tribes of Latin America partook in as well. Their choice of sport? Ulama.

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Ullamaliztli, the pre-Colombian name of the sport according to the American Indian Magazine, was popular among Mesoamerican tribes. Ulama was said to have been played one millennium before the first Greek Olympic games, per Live and Invest Overseas. For context, the first Greek Olympics took place in 776 B.C. — so this game is older than Jesus.

While experts are still discovering many of the nuanced aspects of the game, many agree that it isn’t as simple as it seems. NPR reports that the game is “brutal” and tests the players’ endurance. The game’s ability to push players to the brink occurs in the 2000 animated film “The Road to El Dorado.”

Ulama was a sport played by the Olmecs, Mayans and Aztecs

Reports note that the game was popular among the pre-Colombian and Mesoamerican people of what is now Latin America. Live and Invest Overseas notes that Ulama, which also went by pok ta pok, ollamaliztli, pitz, or tlachtli depending on the region, originated in the heartland of the Olmec territory.

Why the Olmecs? It’s said that they built their empire where Castilla Elastica grew — otherwise known as the Mexican rubber tree. This tree was essential to ulama because it was what the ball the players would use was made out of. NPR cites that it weighed nine pounds.

When the Olmecs moved to Central Mexico, they brought the game with them. Their relocation was something that helped the game spread to other parts. As time progressed, the game changed. NPR explains that there were different versions of the game.

There were different versions of ulama

Some versions of the game are similar to volleyball and use the elbows or forearms to hit the ball. Another version, called ulama de mazo, looks like field hockey and uses a club (or a mazo).

The main version of ulama is the one that uses the hip, according to Live and Invest Overseas. Because of this, it is reported that hip guards can be found among the equipment needed for the game. They also used kneepads, thick girdles, headdresses, and helmets. 

While the game varied from place to place, the game was believed to have religious roots. NPR cites that it first started as a “religious activity” before it “became a sport.” Depending on the region and culture, human sacrifices were also involved, Live and Invest Overseas states.

@santito896

El Ulama es un juego tradicional de origen prehispánico que en el estado Sinaloa es una continuidad del ritual mesoamericano del Juego de Pelota.#rivieramayamexico #mexico #playadelcarmen #corazondemexico #rivieramaya #mexicantiktok #elmejordelmundo #mexicano #tulum #tulummexico #maravillasdelmundo #maravillasdelanaturaleza #hermoso #hermososmomentos #hermosolugar #hermosodia

♬ sonido original – Cabo Valencia

NPR notes that the game was deemed so spiritual that the arriving Spanish priests outlawed the game. Ulama was so important to the Mesoamerican natives that it was used to decide conflicts between warring kings. 

A game from the 16th century between Moctezuma, King of the Aztecs, and Nezahualpilli of Texcoco was seen as an omen for the Aztecs. Nezahualpilli had won the game and declared that this was the first sign of the fall of the Aztecs.

Ulama’s point system was simple but complex

Still deeply rooted in the way ulama was once played, some versions of the game have updated its terms and agreements. For one, there is no longer the ominous rite of human sacrifice. NPR also reports that women can even be found playing the game.

So, what does it emulate from the original game? For one, the point system, something that added to the brutal nature of the game. To score a point, players have to get it past the backline of the opposing team, according to NPR. If the opposing team doesn’t get the ball past the midline of your players, you also earn a point.

@bowlersdesk

San Diego atheates revive the ancient Mesoamerican sport of Ulama in San Diego. The new team is called the Tlecoyotes (Fire Coyotes). They train in Chicano Park under the roar of traffic from he Coronado Bridge. #ulama #sports #indigenous #game

♬ original sound – Bowler

But the scoring system wasn’t as easy as it appeared. It has been described like a game of chutes and ladders. An error could cost you a point and find you back at zero again.

There are also no ties, so ulama was an all-or-nothing kind of sport. Also, if the score is 1-0 and the opposing team scores, the score flips.

Taking that into consideration, achieving the reported eight points to win could be quite tiresome. This is why experts note that ulama is a game of endurance and stamina above anything else.

People across Latin America are keeping ulama alive

In 2016, the American Indian Magazine cited that the game was on the verge of extinction. But a report from Now This News in 2019 cites that ulama has been on the rise. Today’s game no longer uses the towering courts with hoops that can be found among ancient ruins. 

Ulama is now played on bare earth. There are two teams of four participants playing on opposing sides of the court. The goal? For one team to fail. There’s reportedly even a World Cup-like tournament as well. 

Overall, many archeologists and experts are working to preserve the game and bring it back into the mainstream. TRT World reports that local experts look to teach the game to their communities as a way of honoring ancestors.