Rubber balls used in Mesoamerican game 3,500 years ago

Stable rubber may have taken until the 19th century to reach the Old World, but ancient Mesoamericans had been playing ball with the stuff since 1,600 BC. And new research suggests not only were they the world's first polymer scientists, but they could also mix and match rubber compounds for different uses.



American Charles Goodyear was the first westerner to invent vulcanisation in 1839. But 3,500 years previously rubber in Mesoamerica, an area comprising Mexico and several neighbouring states, was used to make any number of items, from decorative arts to sandals – and, of course, their famous rubber balls. Measuring anything between a few inches and a foot, the balls are among the region's most famous ancient artefacts. “They were really spectacular, really enormous,” says Prof Dorothy Hosler of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who alongside Michael Tarkanian has been studying Mesoamerican rubber for over a decade.



Hosler, Tarkanian and former colleague Sandra Burkett had already discovered in 1999 how ancient civilisations such as the Maya, Mexica and Olmec created rubber by blending sap from local latex trees (Castilla elastica) with juice from Morning Glory vines (Ipomoea alba species). Since then Hosler and Tarkanian have been collecting samples from Mexico and mixing them in different quantities at MIT, before testing their qualities (surviving examples are too decayed for their makeup to be studied). They claim the Mesoamericans did this too, producing different rubber for different products.



The pair found a three-to-one compound creates the most durable rubber, ideal for making sandals. Though no original sandals have ever been discovered they were noted by amazed Spanish Conquistadores after their 1521 invasion. There's also clear linguistic evidence: The Mexica used a compound word that combines the words for “rubber” and “sandals.”



A 50-50 mix, on the other hand, results in bouncy rubber – ideal to make balls for the legendary Mesoamerican ballgame whose 'I' shaped courts have been discovered all over the region. The game varied across regions including goal-based versions and others with raquets. The most common, though, was fought out between two teams who tried to keep the ball up without leaving the court, a bit like a netless volleyball.



While England's footballers will arrive in South Africa next month feeling the weight of a nation on their shoulders, it's nothing compared to the price of failure in the ancient game: matches were commonly ceremonial, ending in human sacrifice. Even death may have been a relief after full time: some balls measured weighed eight pounds – about the same as a watermelon. The game was an important religious and political rite: it was even used to settle border disputes.



Just like football today the Mesoamerican ballgame commanded its own industry: Hosler and Tarkanian claim up to 16,000 balls were churned out by special out-of-town rubber factories per year, which were then shipped to capital cities like Chichen Itza as a form of tax payment. The balls, and rubber in general, are thought to have been ancient fertility icons, and were frequently – and luckily for archaeology – ritually buried or laid in sacrificial pools.

Top 10 Ancient Sports: Why Football is Chinese and Sumo is Sexy

1,400 year-old Pyramid Discovered in Peru

Was Mesoamerica Won Through a 'Just War'?

News
peoplePair enliven the Emirates bore-draw
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark episode 8, review
News
Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband (R) and Boris Johnson, mayor of London, talk on the Andrew Marr show in London April 26
General electionAndrew Marr forced to intervene as Boris and Miliband clash on TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ramsay Bolton in Game of Thrones
tvSeries 5, Episode 3 review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

    £26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

    Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

    £24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

    Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

    £22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

    Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

    £16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

    Day In a Page

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence