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
The cartoon produced by Bruce MacKinnon for the Halifax Chronicle-Herald on Thursday, showing the bronze soldiers of the war memorial in Ottawa welcoming Corporal Cirillo into their midst
news
Voices
Funds raised from the sale of poppies help the members of the armed forces with financial difficulties
voicesLindsey German: The best way of protecting soldiers is to stop sending them into disastrous conflicts
Voices
Nigel Farage has backed DJ Mike Read's new Ukip song
voicesNigel Farage: Where is the Left’s outrage over the sexual abuse of girls in the North of England?
Property
One bedroom terraced house for sale, Richmond Avenue, Islington, London N1. On with Winkworths for £275,000.
property
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
Life and Style
Text messaging changes as a relationship evolves
life
News
The comedian, 42, made the controversial comment following the athlete’s sentencing to five years for the culpable homicide of Reeva Steenkamp on Tuesday
peopleComedian's quip about Reeva Steenkamp was less than well received at music magazine awards
Sport
Cristiano Ronaldo in action for Real Madrid
football
News
peoplePerformer had recently been diagnosed with prostate cancer
Life and Style
food + drink
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

    SSRS Report Developer - Urgent Contract - London - £300pd

    £300 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: SSRS Report Developer – 3 Mon...

    KS1 Teacher

    £95 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Key Stage 1 teacher require...

    HR Business Partner - Essex - £39,000 plus benefits

    £32000 - £39000 per annum + benefits + bonus: Ashdown Group: Generalist HR Man...

    Trainee Recruitment Consultant

    £18000 - £30000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Do you feel like your sales role...

    Day In a Page

    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
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?