Hohokam ballplayers made the bleachers at Yankee Stadium seem tame by comparison.
By Leo Banks
NOVEMBER 17, 1997: PAMPERED PLAYERS, worshipping fans and a high-stakes mentality. It sounds like life in professional sports in the 1990s. But it's actually a description of the sports culture that existed among the Hohokam people of prehistoric Arizona.
Archaeologists have located about 220 amphitheater-like structures that researchers believe were used by the Hohokam primarily as ball courts. It's impossible to know with certainty the kind of game played inside these arenas, built between 750-1200 AD. But based on evidence excavated at the sites, and documents describing a similar game played in ancient Mexico, archaeologists say it's easy to imagine a game-day climate that makes the bleachers at Yankee Stadium seem tame by comparison.
"Spanish explorers observed the game in Mexico and left behind quite a bit of information on it. Columbus even brought a rubber ball back to Spain with him," says Todd Bostwick, an archaeologist at the Pueblo Grande Ruins in Phoenix, the best preserved Hohokam ball court in Arizona. "We can assume the Arizona game was similar to the Mexican one."
These ball courts, which probably were used for other public ceremonies such as dances, or as a marketplace, are found from the northern mountains to the southern deserts around Tucson. They're oval-shaped, flat-bottomed and vary in size up to the dimensions of a football field.
They contain stone markers indicating zones of play and probably goal posts. It's likely that players moved a stone ball, about the size of a baseball, up and down the court to either hit the goal marker or push the ball past it.
Less commonly used, primarily because stone was so readily available, was a rubber-like ball made from a native plant resin. Such a ball, believed to be close to 1,000 years old, was discovered in central Arizona in 1909.
The sides of the ball courts are banked, which allowed fans to gather. The Snaketown court, located on the Gila River 20 miles southeast of Phoenix, was capable of holding 500.
"We can assume people were sitting there hollering and screaming just like they do at Suns' games today," says Bostwick. "We know the Mexican games were pretty lively, with many sizable wages made."
But more than money was at stake. In the Mexican version, fertility, the smooth operation of the universe and the fate of kingdoms hung on the outcome, and in some cases, the captain of the losing team was beheaded.
No evidence exists that human sacrifice took place in Arizona, but diggers at Pueblo Grande made an intriguing discovery: A grave in which a severed head was buried with a full body.
"I've suggested it might be trophy head," says Bostwick. "But whether it was part of the games or not, I don't know."
No major Hohokam village was without a ball court, and some had as many as five, an indication of the game's place of importance in the culture. Within the villages themselves, the courts were located close to platform mounds, a ceremonially significant formation akin to small temples found in Mexico.
The games in that country were considered sacred.
"They were a ceremony, a kind of religious drama," says David Wilcox, an archaeologist at Flagstaff's Museum of Northern Arizona. "The court represented a contact point with the underworld and the players sometimes represented gods. The games probably had the same ritual significance here, too."
If Hohokam athletes were as revered as their Mexican counterparts, Bostwick says they were likely exempted from everyday work, such as building irrigation canals or working in fields. And the most die-hard fans, or the wealthiest, probably possessed icons representing their favorite players.
Among the items scientists have unearthed are four-inch clay figurines depicting men wearing hip and shoulder pads. These likely player replicas have even been found interred alone in burial caches, meaning they must've had a ritual significance.
The figurines add further clues to how the game might've been played. The ball was probably moved down court by bouncing it off the shoulders and hips, soccer-style. A similar game, using a small rubber ball, is played to this day in the flat farm fields around Sinaloa, Mexico.
Wilcox, who has written extensively about the Hohokam game, says different versions of it are played elsewhere in Mexico. The Tarahumara people of Chihuahua play a kick ball game, and in the state of Jalisco, athletes kick the ball against a wall.
"Given the shape of Arizona's courts, I don't think hip ball was played here," says Wilcox. "A kick or stick game is more likely."
At one time the game here involved the use of a paddle. Diggers in Arizona have found dozens of what are called manaplas--flat pieces of stone, like a paddle, with a hole at the top that served as a grip for whacking the ball.
When the Hohokam courts stopped being used about 1200 AD, they became receptacles for trash, and by the late 1400s the Hohokam themselves vanished. But two of their Arizona ball courts have become tourist draws.
The Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, which includes a ball court, draws 180,000 visitors a year, and Pueblo Grande attracts 100,000.
"People are intrigued to learn that kingdoms could change and lives could be lost over sports," says Bostwick. "I think it helps them feel vindicated at being such big sports fans. They think, 'Hey, it's been important for thousands of years, I'm going to watch the game this Sunday.' "
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