The ancient Maya may have devised a unique solution to the age-old problem of what to do with rulers when they die: turn them into a ball and play a game of "pelota". Considered one of the world’s oldest team sports, pelota is still played by Indigenous communities in parts of Central America, although the use of balls made from the remains of politicians is one tradition that has not stood the test of time.
Evidence for this strange sporting custom has been presented by archaeologist Juan Yadeun Angulo of Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). While excavating the Toniná temple complex in southern Mexico, he and his colleagues uncovered 400 urns containing a mixture of human ashes, rubber, coal and plant roots.
“After cross-referencing [this finding with] written accounts about the Maya site, it appears that the cremated remains were used to manufacture rubber balls used in the ritual game of Pelota,” explains the INAH in a statement.
Toniná dates back to the Classical Maya period of 500 to 687 CE and features a sunken ball court where pelota would once have been played. The urns were found buried some 8 meters (26 feet) below the Sun Temple, in a crypt that Yadeun Angulo says was reserved for the ritual transformation of deceased rulers.
This hypothesis relies largely on the messages engraved on the three scoring hoops that mark out the boundaries of the pelota court at Toniná. According to these inscriptions, three ancient dignitaries were taken to the “Cave of the Dead”, where they underwent a 260-day process of “transmutation”.
Specifically, the carvings identify Wak Chan Káhk´, who died on September 1, 775, as well as Aj Kololte’, who perished on April 1, 776, and a woman named Káwiil Kaan, who died in 722. According to the INAH, sulfur from these three rulers’ ashes was probably used for the vulcanization of the rubber from which the pelota balls were made.
“It is enlightening to know that the Maya sought to convert the [dead] bodies of their governors into a living force, something to stimulate the people,” said Yadeun Angulo. "We have evidence they were incorporated into balls. During the Classic Period the balls were gigantic," he added.
Separate research has shown that some Maya warriors collected the skulls of their enemies as trophies. And while there’s no suggestion that these grisly prizes were awarded to pelota champions, it’s hard to think of a more fitting reward for winning a game of ruler-ball.