Dead Mayan elite were used as rubber balls, ancient crypt reveals

Archaeologists have revealed how the elite from the ancient Mayan civilization became rubber balls to be used in their games.


Studies of grease markings in the walls of a centuries-old tomb show the bodies of high officials were cremated and their ashes used to harden the balls.

The game—known as Pitz or Pok-a-Tok—was like an early form of squash with players hitting the ball with their elbows, knees or hips.

Stone cover seizing 90 per 60 cm with the representation of a tied up prisoner in an undated photo. Researchers found a crypt where the bodies of the governors were cremated. Mauricio Marat-INAH/Zenger

Anthropology expert Juan Yadeun Angulo, an investigator at the National Institute of Anthropology and History of Mexico, discovered the tomb in 2020 in the Temple of the Sun, a pyramidal structure at the archeological site of Tonina in Chiapas state, Mexico.

The entrance to the tomb leads to a series of small vaults that end in an antechamber with a crypt located 8 meters or approximately 26 feet inside the pyramid.

The crypt and the antechamber were constructed in the 7th or 8th century A.D. and predate the exterior structure of the Temple of the Sun.

Yadeun Angulo explained that the antechamber is 1.34 by 1.64 meters or 4.4 by 5.3 feet in length and 1.34 meters or 5.38 feet tall, while the crypt measures 1.34 by 1.34 meters or 4.38 feet by 4.38 feet and is 1.10 meters or 3.6 feet in height.

Investigators found vessels that contained human ashes within these reduced spaces along with an oiliness on the walls that appears to have been there for more than 13 centuries.

The remains found in Temple of Sun in Tonina, Mexico in an undated photo. The crypt revealed greasiness in the walls dating from over 13 centuries ago. Mauricio Marat-INAH/Zenger

A microscopic analysis of organic materials found within the vessels indicates that priests or other specialized members of the community burnt the dead bodies of high-ranking officials during religious ceremonies.

Sulfur extracted from their remains was then used to harden rubber to create balls for Pok-ta-Pok or Pitz.

According to Maya archaeologist Diane Davies of University College London, "The Maya ball game was only one type of several played throughout Mesoamerica, from the Preclassic period to the Spanish conquest.

"The Maya ball game and its associated ball courts have been symbolically linked to the movement of celestial bodies, especially the sun and moon, which are related to seasonal agricultural fertility."

Detail of the ball game in the archaeological site of Tonina, Chiapas, Mexico, in an undated photo. Researchers found a crypt where the bodies of the elite in Mayan society were cremated. Zenger/Mauricio Marat-INAH

Players were not allowed to touch the balls with their hands, feet or heads and the game was often used to solve tribal disputes.

The game was sometimes played by rivals in place of open warfare. The losers of a Pok-ta-Pok match in that instance were killed.

The Maya ruins at Iximche in Guatemala has one of the best-preserved Pok-ta-Pok courts in existence.

This story was provided to Newsweek by Zenger News.

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By Alice Amelia Thomas / Zenger News Reporter
(Source:; August 3, 2022;
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