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Be a responsible traveller. Show tribal people respect and meet them on their premises. Visiting people with a different lifestyle and culture could sometimes be a very rewarding adventure, but be aware of that many tribal communities are extremely vulnerable to outside influences. All tribal people need to be protected from tourists in order to preserve their unique lifestyle and cultures. Travellers should understand that some tribes would like to live undisturbed, and that visit would be an intrusion.

Mayan ballgames in Tikal, Guatemala – Were the winners or losers sacrificed?

Pyramid in Tikal in Guatemala

I am sure that the Indians had many secret rituals in the past. One of them is the ball games. They played the game called pok-ta-pok or Pitz. This was actual a ritual in the Mayan society related to sacrificing, according to my local guide. And they sacrificed the winners. But it`s true?

Photo. Ballcourt at Tikal, in the Petén Basin region of the Maya lowlands. The winners or losers of the ballgame were sacrificed. Photo will be updated. © Travel Explorations.

One thing the ancient Maya are remembered for is their ball game, which they called Pitz. That was probably the earliest team “sport” in the world. This game is more than 3,000 years old. It was a deadly game, and for me it sound more like a ritual than sport. 

Three hundred courts have been found in the region where Mayan lived. These were shaped as the capital ‘L’. The Maya built large stone courts and often played the games in front of crowds. The audience stood on high platforms on each side, which were decorated with painted murals depicting warriors, rituals and ceremonies.

The game lasted two weeks. They used a rubber ball which was not meant to touch the ground. Most historians assume a weight of 3–4 kg (7–9 lb) and a size of a skittle ball (110–130 mm: source: Wikipedia). The aim of the game was to get the ball to the other side of the court or to make the other team drop the ball. Its size and weight of the ball varied over the centuries. The ball was put in motion by action of the right hip, the right elbow, and the right knee, and was not permitted to touch the ground. 

What did these games actually meant for the Maya? The investigation still goes on. The ball court itself was a focal point of Maya cities and symbolized the city's wealth and power. As I learned, also at that time ball games were popular, but the Incas played with quite different rules than today. Or was it a ritual? Instead of rewarding the winners with a big gold cup (trophy) and a bunch of money, they sacrificed them. Believe it or not; at that time it was an honour to be sacrificed. Or was it to comport the losers? Not a punishment? 

Anyway I learned that Maya players took the game seriously. That reminded me of what the legendary Liverpool Manager Bill Shankly once said: “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”

For they who was sacrified, could get earlier to paradise. In my mind this was a shocking game changer for me. Confusing. With such rules, I couldn`t imagine how the efforts in the games were taken out by the players? 

In various indigenous cultures of South America, such as the Maya and Aztec civilizations, ball games were played for religious, ceremonial, and recreational purposes. This went on for thousands of years. During these years the game has developed. The rules and rituals varied also among different tribes and regions, but some were common. The games were played with two teams played against each other. The number of players varied between 2 and 6 players per team. 

My local guide in Tikal told me that the winning team, or the captain of the losing team was sacrificed. I thought he was joking with me, but he pretended to be serious. Wouldn`t it be most reasonable to lose then? 

I also heard the opposite, that the losers of these ball games face sacrifice, but not necessarily. Sometimes a captive might be executed at the game, but these sacrifices weren't an integral part of the game. That person would have been executed anyway. Trophy heads were popular in Mayan Culture, and it follows that they were important in ballgame. 
Remnants of Tikal reveal the culture of this great ancient city, with an estimated population of 100,000. Testaments of the Mayans life are found over a small area in the middle of the jungle in Guatemala. Ball-courts, wooden lintels, unique calendars, and glyphic writings, gave me a strong impression about how life was in a society that ended for over 1,000 years ago. Maybe except from the ball courts there. For me is still a mystery. 

Several ball courts have been found in the ruins of Tikal. Especially I found one of them very fascinating. These courts were built for playing a rubber ball game. With long narrow alleys and sloping side surfaces, I assumed the Indians played some real dramatic matches there. Perhaps with blood sharing too.  

As far I have learned, the idea of sacrificing the winners or losers in these games is not a common historical practice associated with Maya ball games. The Maya ball game, also known as "pok-ta-pok" or "ulama," had various versions and variations across different Maya city-states, and the rules and significance of the game could differ. The game could be used for various purposes, including settling disputes, celebration, marking important events, and demonstrating the power and prestige of rulers. Based on research, there is evidence of human sacrifice in Maya culture, but as far I know this was related to other rituals or ceremonies than ball games. It`s stilled to discussed by experts whether it was ritual killing at ball games and how frequently.

After I have seen most of the pyramids in the area, I met some Indians who invited me to play football with them. Since I am very interested in football I accepted the invitation and joined them for a while. Curious Indians flocked around to watch the match. It didn`t took long time before both the players and audience started to shout; give Gringo the ball. Was it a sign?

Anyway I had play with the cards I have been dealt. I knew that the rules seem to have changed over the centuries. The ball game was not played for enjoyment. The main reason was to keep the gods happy. I bear in mind that people believed that the games were played instead of going to war. That was a good thing. And so I wondered: would the game last for two weeks? I didn`t have time to stay her so long. Human sacrifice was probably part of the games in past, with perhaps the losing captain to the gods. What was the current rules? 

I gambled on being on the losing team to keep my head. For once I didn`t fight to win. I decided to let them win. They achieved their honour, but the most important: I kept my life.

Stein Morten Lund, 1998

Additional information
What games did the Maya play? (BBC)
Ancient Maya Blessed Ball Courts with Hallucinogenic Plants (Explorersweb)
Maya Ballgame (Wikipedia)
Did the Maya Really Sacrifice Their Ballgame Players? (Live Science)

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