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Pok-A-Tok: The Mayan Ball Game

Author:

Haunty is a history buff who enjoys reading and writing about ancient history and cultures from around the world.

Maya Pok-A-Tok ballcourt with the ring in Chichén Itzá

Maya Pok-A-Tok ballcourt with the ring in Chichén Itzá

What Is Pok-A-Tok?

Pok-A-Tok is a fast-paced ball game played by the Maya of Central America. It is their most famous game, which is thought to have been invented around 2000 BCE. Pok-A-Tok was played in teams of one or two players in every major Mayan city. If there were two players in a team, they assisted each other.

The objective of the game was to get a ball through a narrow stone hoop placed on the court wall, often as high up as 20 feet from the ground. Players were not allowed to use their hands or feet—only their head, shoulders, elbows, wrists, and hips.

Ball game scene on a Mayan vase

Ball game scene on a Mayan vase

How Was Pok-A-Tok played in Mayan times?

For the Maya, Pok-A-Tok was more than just a challenging game. It symbolized the struggle of life over death, and war and hunting. Pok-A-Tok was often played by prisoners of war, and the members of the losing team were offered as sacrificed to the gods.

Pok-A-Tok games would go on without interruption for long periods of time, often for days. Scoring was so difficult that when a player managed to finally get the ball through the ring located high up on the wall, the game usually ended.

This is not to say that the Maya didn't play the game just for fun. They did. Players would wear protective padding around their waists, and on one shin and forearm. Otherwise the hard, solid-rubber ball could have severely injured or even killed them. The balls were made from rubber from cau-uchu trees, and depictions of Pok-A-Tok show that the ball was as big as a basketball is today.

The padding, called yokes, was made of cotton stuffed into wooden frames. One of these yokes was found in a tomb at Tikal. However, even in games played for fun, the members of the losing team, or at least the captain, were killed in sacrifice to the gods. Who would want to actually play Pok-A-Tok for fun given those odds?

The ruins of Chichén Itzá in Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula has the biggest Pok-A-Tok court of all Mesoamerica. It is 545 feet long and 225 feet wide. The Great Ballcourt of Chichén Itzá has its walls covered with carved depictions of sacrifices made to the gods at the game’s end. Near the court, there is a stone platform decorated with hundreds of carved skulls.

Mayan Ballgame Video

Harvesting from a cau-uchu rubber tree.

Harvesting from a cau-uchu rubber tree.

Cau-uchu Trees and Rubber Harvest

Mesoamerican people used rubber by 1600 BCE. It was grown in the rainforest of the lowlands and then transferred by merchants to surrounding areas.

Making balls wasn't the only purpose of rubber. It was also used to attach stones to wooden handles, to seal bags that carried water, to water-proof clothing, and to make drumsticks for wooden drums. The Maya even coated their feet with layers of rubber to make shoes. Shaman-priests used rubber to treat lip and ear wounds.

During harvest, the Maya made diagonal cuts in the bark of cau-uchu trees to start the flow of latex down a central vertical channel and into their containers. The rubber was mixed with the juice of the morning glory vine to make it tough, strong, and very elastic—perfect for bouncing. It hardened within minutes, but before that would happen, the Maya shaped the rubber into different sizes of balls.

pok-a-tok-the-maya-ball-game

How to Make Your Own Rubber Ball

Do this in a ventilated area! You will need a jar of rubber cement and a brush.

  1. Spread a thin layer of rubber cement on a flat surface. Let it dry for a few minutes.
  2. Start pushing your fingers around on the tacky rubber cement. It will peel off and gradually stick together. Roll it around into a ball.
  3. Spread another layer of rubber cement on your work surface. After a few minutes, roll your ball around on the new layer. It will peel up and stick to your ball.
  4. Keep rolling it around, and all the rubber cement will gradually form into a bigger ball.
  5. Repeat this process as many times as you like, building up your rubber ball.
No hands.

No hands.

How to Play Pok-A-Tok at Home?

You can do this alone or in teams. You will need two pieces of paper, a pen, tape, a ball.

  1. Draw a circle about 5 inches in diameter onto each piece of paper. If you are playing by yourself, you will only need one piece of paper.
  2. Tape or tack a piece of paper on opposite walls slightly above your head to start. The higher the target, the more challenging the game will be.
  3. Divide into two equal teams and choose your targets. Working as a team, try to hit the center of the circle on your team’s target with the rubber ball without using your hands. The other team will try to take the ball away from you to hit their target, but they also cannot use their hands.
  4. The first team to hit the target wins a point. When both teams have scored a point on their target, move the target higher. Or make the game more challenging by only using your feet, legs, and head. Imagine trying to play Pok-A-Tok like the Maya did, with a heavy rubber ball and a 30-foot-high ring—and remember the penalty for losing in ancient Mayan culture was death!

© 2011 Haunty

Comments

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