Ancient Maya sanctified ballcourts: ritual finds in Mexico

Credit: Mario La Pergola /Unsplash.

In the same way that sports fans revere stadiums like Fenway Park or Wimbledon’s Centre Court, the ancient Maya held their ballcourts in high regard, places where the community gathered not just for entertainment but for significant ceremonial practices.

Recent findings by archaeologists from the University of Cincinnati have illuminated these ancient practices, particularly in the Maya city of Yaxnohcah in Mexico, where the intersection of ritual and sport came to life beneath the surfaces of these historic ballcourts.

The team, using innovative environmental DNA analysis techniques, discovered various plants beneath the plaza floors of a newly excavated ballcourt, revealing their role in ancient Maya rituals.

These plants were not just random flora; they had significant religious and medicinal roles, indicating their use in ceremonies likely aimed at invoking the protection of the gods during the construction of these communal spaces.

This practice, sometimes referred to as an “ensouling ritual,” was believed to bring blessings and protection to those who frequented these sites.

David Lentz, a professor at UC, and his colleagues have worked with multiple institutions, including Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History and universities from Calgary and Campeche, among others.

Their collaborative research has opened a window into how the ancient Maya not only utilized these spaces but revered them.

The Maya ballgame, known as pok-a-tok, was not merely a sport but a reflection of Maya mythology and cosmology, involving hero twins who played ballgames against gods to escape the underworld.

This mythological significance suggests that the ballcourts were more than venues for physical activity; they were arenas where the metaphysical and mortal realms met, sometimes culminating in human sacrifices to appease deities or honor significant celestial events.

The study spanned from 2016 to 2022 at Yaxnohcah, located near the Guatemalan border, uncovering not just the ballcourt but also significant ecological and cultural narratives that paint a broader picture of Maya civilization.

Researchers found that these sacred games likely occurred under the cloak of darkness or the blaze of the tropical sun, each game a ritual enactment of mythic battles and societal values.

Further discoveries included a variety of culturally significant plants like xtabentun, a type of morning glory known for its hallucinogenic properties, and chili peppers, used both as medicine and protective offerings.

The analysis also identified Hampea trilobata and Oxandra lanceolata, plants used in Maya rituals for wrapping food and medicinal purposes.

These findings highlight the Maya’s sophisticated use of natural resources, blending daily life with spiritual practices.

Nicholas Dunning, UC Professor Emeritus, noted that these findings shed light on how the ancient Maya viewed their architectural spaces—as living entities imbued with the spirits of ancestors or deities, necessitating regular offerings and rituals to maintain their sanctity and efficacy.

The excavation and subsequent studies not only add depth to our understanding of the Maya’s spiritual and cultural practices but also underscore the potential of environmental DNA as a tool for uncovering the past.

This technique allows researchers to detect and analyze ancient biological materials, which traditional archaeological methods might miss, especially in tropical climates where organic matter decomposes rapidly.

This research does more than just fill gaps in the archaeological record; it enriches our understanding of the Maya as a people intimately connected to their environment and devoted to maintaining a balance between their material needs and spiritual obligations.

The findings from Yaxnohcah offer a poignant reminder of the complexity and sophistication of the Maya civilization, reflecting their enduring legacy in the study of ancient cultures.

The research findings can be found in PLOS ONE.

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