Mayan ball games on sacred ground

Such stone rings served as a kind of goal in Mayan ball games. Image: Chichen Itza, © LanaCanada/iStock

Were they hoping for divine blessing for the planned “sporting events”? When constructing their ball courts, the ancient Maya apparently carried out special rituals on the site of the facilities. This suggests traces of plant votive offerings that archaeologists discovered under a ball court in Mexico. They come from a plant with hallucinogenic effects as well as chili pepper and other plants with symbolic and cultural significance. The discovery sheds further light on the ritual practices of the Maya, say the researchers.

Until the mysterious decline around 1000 years ago, their culture shaped large parts of Central America: ruins of monumental settlement structures and other fascinating traces testify to the mysterious civilization of the Maya. The focus of the current study was a special aspect of their culture, which is known from numerous archaeological finds and representations: The Maya held ball competitions in complexes, some of which were elaborately constructed, that were located next to temples and other central buildings in their settlements. In one version, players had to try to get a ball through a ring on a wall.

One might think that these “sporting events” were for entertainment. But they apparently had little to do with games and fun and sometimes even ended up with human sacrifices. Various evidence shows that ball games had an important ritual-religious significance among the Maya. This is referred to, for example, by a story in Mayan mythology, known from representations, in which a ball game with divine participation decided between life and death.

A dark spot under a ball court

The new clue to the importance of ball courts now comes from the remains of the Mayan city of Yaxnohcah on the Yucatán Peninsula. In a central area of ​​the settlement, archaeologists discovered the remains of a facility that was identified by its features as a ball court. According to the dating, it was built on older settlement structures around 2,000 years ago. As the researchers led by David Lentz from the University of Cincinnati report, they have now made a special discovery during closer examinations of the facility: directly under the front part of the playing field, they came across a strikingly dark deposit. It was assumed that these were traces of perishable materials that had been deposited there before construction.

In order to clarify what could have caused the discoloration, the researchers took samples from the dark soil substance. These were then subjected to special genetic testing methods to look for possible DNA remnants of the former material. This was successful and the researchers were able to sequence the genetic traces obtained and compare them with information from reference databases. As the team reports, the analysis results initially showed that the dark spot was traces of plant materials.

DNA traces of culturally important plants

The sequence comparisons then also provided detailed information about the species. It turned out that one of the four identified plants is the morning glory species Ipomoea corymbosa. Interestingly, according to the team, it is known to have hallucinogenic effects and there is evidence of its use in Mayan divination rituals. The researchers also found genetic traces of the well-known medicinal plant Oxandra lanceolata as well as another particularly prominent plant: chili pepper. “We think of chili as a spice, but to the ancient Maya it was much more than that: a medicinal plant used in many ceremonies,” says Lentz.

The fourth plant species identified is the tree Hampea trilobata. In this case, its leaves probably served as packaging material for bundles, as this use is also documented in other cases among the Maya, the researchers explain. “I think that the discovery of these plants, which are known to be culturally important to the Maya, in one spot makes it clear that they were votive offerings deliberately placed under the platform,” says co-author Eric Tepe from the University of Cincinnati, summing up the result.

It therefore stands to reason that the ancient Maya probably made a ceremonial sacrifice when building the ball court. “Apparently they asked for the goodwill of the gods when they built new buildings,” explains Lentz. This in turn is reminiscent of customs that still exist in our modern society, the researcher concludes: From the groundbreaking ceremony to the placement of the last steel beam to the cutting of a ribbon – important construction projects are still often accompanied by ceremonies today.

Source: University of Cincinnati, specialist article: PLoS ONE, doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0301497

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