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'?

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Sport
Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi during Barcelona training in August
footballPete Jenson co-ghost wrote Suarez’s autobiography and reveals how desperate he's been to return
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
newsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
News
Laurence Easeman and Russell Brand
people
Sport
Fans of Dulwich Hamlet FC at their ground Champion Hill
footballFans are rejecting the £2,000 season tickets, officious stewarding, and airline-stadium sponsorship
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

    Maths Teacher

    £110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

    Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

    £40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

    ***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

    £30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

    ***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

    £35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

    Day In a Page

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker