Ulama (game)

Ulama ([uˈlama]) is a ball game played in a few communities in the Mexican state of Sinaloa. Descended from the Aztec version of the Mesoamerican ballgame,[1] the game is one of the oldest continuously played sports in the world and is notable for the fact that it is the oldest known game using a rubber ball.

Ulama 37 (Aguilar)
Sinaloan ulama player in action.


The word ulama comes from the Nahuatl word ōllamaliztli [oːlːamaˈlistɬi] a combination of ōllamas [ˈoːlːama] (playing of a game with a ball) and ōllei [ˈoːlːi] (rubber). Ōllamaliztli was the Aztec name for the Mesoamerican ballgame, whose roots extended back to at least the 2nd millennium BC and evidence of which has been found in nearly all Mesoamerican cultures in an area extending from modern-day Mexico to El Salvador, and possibly in modern-day Arizona and New Mexico.[2] Archaeologists have uncovered rubber balls dating to at least 1600 BC,[3] ballgamer figures from at least 1200 BC, and nearly 1500 ancient ball courts.[2][4]

However, due to its religious and ritual aspects, Spanish Catholics suppressed the game soon after the Spanish conquest, leaving it to survive in areas such as Sinaloa, where Spanish influence was less pervasive.[5]


Ulama games are played on a temporary court called a tastei ([tas.te], from tlachtli [ˈt͡ɬat͡ʃt͡ɬi], the Nahuatl word meaning "ballcourt"). The bounds of these long narrow courts are made by drawing or chalking thick lines in the dirt. The courts are divided into opposing sides by a center line, called an analco. A ball that is allowed to cross the end line, the chichi or chivo, will result in a point for the opposing team. Points or rayas ("lines", so named for the tally marks used to keep score) are gained in play. The scoring system provides for resetting the score to zero in certain conditions, which can make for lengthy games.

The modern-day game has three main forms:

  • Ulama de cadera or hip ulama. A hip ulama team consists of five or more players (but there could be as many as twelve) wearing loincloths, with leather hip pads for some protection against the heavy (3 kg, around 7 lb) rubber ball.
  • Ulama de antebrazo or forearm ulama. Played on a smaller field, with teams of one to three players and a ball lighter than that of hip ulama, the games requires the players to return the ball using their wrapped forearm.[6] Women often play this game.
  • Ulama de mazo or Ulama de palo, in which a heavy (6–7 kg or 13-15 lb) two-handed wooden paddle strikes a 500 g (1 lb) ball, usually with teams of three or four.[7]

The object of the game is to keep the ball in play and in bounds. Depending on the score — and the local variant of the rules — the ball is played either high or low. A team scores a point when a player of the opposing team hits the ball out of turn; misses the ball; knocks the ball out of bounds; touches the ball with their hands or some other body part aside from the hip; accidentally touches a teammate; lets the ball stop moving before it reaches the centre line or even if they fail to announce the score after they have scored a point.

The first team that scores eight points wins. If both teams end up having the same number of points after a turn, both sides begin again from zero. One record-setting game reportedly lasted for eight days, but most modern games are stopped after about two hours.

Weiditz Trachtenbuch 010-011
Aztec ullamaliztli players performing for Charles V in Spain, drawn by Christoph Weiditz in 1528. Note the similarity in dress to the modern-day ulama player above.

Ulama balls

See also Mesoamerican rubber balls

See also


  1. ^ Leyenaar (2001) p. 123.
  2. ^ a b Fox, John. The ball : discovering the object of the game, 1st ed., New York : Harper, 2012. ISBN 978-0-06-188179-4. Cf. Chapter 4: "Sudden Death in the New World" about the Ulama game.
  3. ^ See El Manati article for information on recovery of the earliest rubber balls.
  4. ^ Taladoire counts 1560 courts discovered as of the year 2000, p. 98.
  5. ^ Leyenaar (2001) p. 128.
  6. ^ For a more indepth look at hip ulama and forearm ulama, see Leyenaar (2001).
  7. ^ Federación Mexicana de Juegos y Deportes Autóctonos y Tradicionales, A.C.


  • Federación Mexicana de Juegos y Deportes Autóctonos y Tradicionales, A.C. Ulama, accessed October 2007.
  • Leyenaar, Ted (1978) Ulama, the Perpetuation in Mexico of the Pre-Spanish Ball Game Ullamaliztli. Leiden.
  • Leyenaar, Ted (2001). ""The Modern Ballgames of Sinaloa: a Survival of the Aztec Ullamaliztli"". In E. Michael Whittington (ed.). The Sport of Life and Death: The Mesoamerican Ballgame. New York: Thames & Hudson. pp. 97–115. ISBN 0-500-05108-9.
  • Taladoire, Eric (2001). "The Architectural Background of the Pre-Hispanic Ballgame". In E. Michael Whittington (ed.). The Sport of Life and Death: The Mesoamerican Ballgame. New York: Thames & Hudson. pp. 97–115. ISBN 978-0-500-05108-5.

External links

History of games

The history of games dates to the ancient human past. Games are an integral part of all cultures and are one of the oldest forms of human social interaction. Games are formalized expressions of play which allow people to go beyond immediate imagination and direct physical activity. Common features of games include uncertainty of outcome, agreed upon rules, competition, separate place and time, elements of fiction, elements of chance, prescribed goals and personal enjoyment.

Games capture the ideas and worldviews of their cultures and pass them on to the future generation. Games were important as cultural and social bonding events, as teaching tools and as markers of social status. As pastimes of royalty and the elite, some games became common features of court culture and were also given as gifts. Games such as Senet and the Mesoamerican ball game were often imbued with mythic and ritual religious significance. Games like Gyan chauper and The Mansion of Happiness were used to teach spiritual and ethical lessons while Shatranj and Wéiqí (Go) were seen as a way to develop strategic thinking and mental skill by the political and military elite.

In his 1938 book, Homo Ludens, Dutch cultural historian Johan Huizinga argued that games were a primary condition of the generation of human cultures. Huizinga saw the playing of games as something that “is older than culture, for culture, however inadequately defined, always presupposes human society, and animals have not waited for man to teach them their playing.” Huizinga saw games as a starting point for complex human activities such as language, law, war, philosophy and art.

Mesoamerican ballcourt

A Mesoamerican ballcourt is a large masonry structure of a type used in Mesoamerica for over 2,700 years to play the Mesoamerican ballgame, particularly the hip-ball version of the ballgame. More than 1,300 ballcourts have been identified, 60% in the last 20 years alone. Although there is a tremendous variation in size, in general all ballcourts are the same shape: a long narrow alley flanked by two walls with horizontal, vertical, and sloping faces. Although the alleys in early ballcourts were open-ended, later ballcourts had enclosed end-zones, giving the structure an -shape when viewed from above.

Ballcourts were also used for functions other than, or in addition to, ballgames. Ceramics from western Mexico show ballcourts being used for other sporting endeavours, including what appears to be a wrestling match. It is also known from archaeological excavations that ballcourts were the sites of sumptuous feasts, although whether these were conducted in the context of the ballgame or as another event entirely is not as yet known. The siting of the most prominent ballcourts within the sacred precincts of cities and towns, as well as the votive deposits found buried there, demonstrates that the ballcourt were places of spectacle and ritual.

Mesoamerican ballgame

The Mesoamerican ballgame was a sport with ritual associations played since 1400 BC by the pre-Columbian people of Ancient Mesoamerica. The sport had different versions in different places during the millennia, and a newer more modern version of the game, ulama, is still played in a few places by the indigenous population.The rules of the game are not known, but judging from its descendant, ulama, they were probably similar to racquetball, where the aim is to keep the ball in play. The stone ballcourt goals are a late addition to the game.

In the most common theory of the game, the players struck the ball with their hips, although some versions allowed the use of forearms, rackets, bats, or handstones. The ball was made of solid rubber and weighed as much as 4 kg (9 lbs), and sizes differed greatly over time or according to the version played.

The game had important ritual aspects, and major formal ballgames were held as ritual events. Late in the history of the game, some cultures occasionally seem to have combined competitions with religious human sacrifice. The sport was also played casually for recreation by children and may have been played by women as well.Pre-Columbian ballcourts have been found throughout Mesoamerica, as for example at Copán, as far south as modern Nicaragua, and possibly as far north as what is now the U.S. state of Arizona. These ballcourts vary considerably in size, but all have long narrow alleys with slanted side-walls against which the balls could bounce.

Mesoamerican rubber balls

Ancient Mesoamericans were the first people to invent rubber balls (Nahuatl languages: ōllamaloni), sometime before 1600 BCE, and used them in a variety of roles. The Mesoamerican ballgame, for example, employed various sizes of solid rubber balls and balls were burned as offerings in temples, buried in votive deposits, and laid in sacred bogs and cenotes.

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