Ball games have been played in Mesoamerica since the earliest of times. The most popular of these ball games was called tlachtli or pok-to-pok. Archaeologists have discovered thousand year old figurines of ball players wearing knee pads, gloves, and other equipment known to be used in tlachtli ball games. The oldest ball courts are found in the Mexican state of Chiapas and are believed to have been constructed sometime around 700-550 BC. It is believed that prior to this date the courts were simply rectangular open areas. Over time the styles and sizes of the courts changed. Sometime around 0-200 AD ball courts were constructed in the shape of the Roman Numeral I. The rules of the game varied from region to region. In ancient times there was a ball court in almost every city. Courts have been found dating back to the height of the Mayan and Toltec civilizations. The largest ball court was constructed in the ancient Toltec capital of Tula. It is 214 meters long. The game was played with heavy latex balls from rubber trees found in Vera Cruz, Mexico. Tlachli was so popular, that Tenochtitlan imported over 16,000 rubber balls annually. In fact, it was so popular in southern Mexico, that there were over forty ball courts in the Valley of Oaxaca alone. Most of these have never been excavated so no one know for sure exactly how old they are.
All of the ball courts had high parallel walls that bordered two opposite sides. There was a ring of stone hanging from each wall. Points were scored when the ball was passed through the rings. We know from pictorial evidence that there were two teams with seven players on each side, including a captain. Players wore a short skirt, with feathered crests on the back, knee protectors, sandals, and a cap or feathers. Each teams uniform had its own individual markings. The game started when a referee through the ball out in the middle of the court. It the ball touched the ground the game was started over. The players moved the ball by bouncing it off the walls until they could take a shot at the small circular ring. Each player had a flat wooden plate in the shape of a serpent in their right hand and a wooden club in his belt.
Numerous historians have researched Tlachli and concluded that it was played without the use of hands. This type of game was especially true of the ancient Aztecs, who played a version of tlachtli called olamaliztli. Olamaliztli was believed to be very similar to our modern soccer. This game was played with only the head, hips, and elbow, and the ball could not be touched by hand. Some have gone as far as calling it Mesoamerican hip ball. I agree with Professor Gualberto Zapata Alonzo when he says that without the use of the hands it would have been virtually impossible to put the ball through such a small ring at that height. However, what he fails to acknowledge is that there were many versions of tlachtli, including some that were very similar to our modern game of rugby. Professor Alonzo's point of view is supported by hard evidence. He points to the ancient carvings on the walls of the ball court in Chichen Itza as proof that hands were used. As he says, if they didn't use their hands then why did they need a club and flat wooden serpents head.