For sports enthusiasts, iconic locations like Fenway Park, Wembley Stadium, or Centre Court at Wimbledon are revered as hallowed ground. But even millennia before these modern venues, ancient Maya built ballcourts that were more than just places to play; they were sites of ceremonial significance and sacred rituals.

Recent archaeological research from the University of Cincinnati has unearthed evidence suggesting that the Maya sanctified their ballcourts with ritual offerings, placing hallucinogenic plants and chiles beneath them.

The study was led by a team of archaeologists who analyzed environmental DNA (eDNA) to identify a collection of plants used in ceremonial rituals in the ancient Maya city of Yaxnohcah in Mexico’s Campeche region.

Map of Yaxnohcah showing the juxtaposition of the Helena complex with the Brisa complex and other ceremonial complexes within the site core
Map of Yaxnohcah showing the juxtaposition of the Helena complex with the Brisa complex and other ceremonial complexes within the site core. Credit: David L. Lentz et al. / PLOS ONE

This discovery, made under the soil of a plaza where a ballcourt was constructed, suggests that these offerings were part of a ritualistic practice to bless and protect the newly constructed field.

David Lentz, a professor at the University of Cincinnati, explained the significance of these offerings. When the ancient Maya erected a new building, they would ask the gods to protect its inhabitants. It was a ritual to obtain a blessing and appease the gods, Lentz noted. This practice was observed in many of the ancient Maya’s construction projects, where ceremonial objects, such as pottery and jewelry, were often found.

However, what sets this discovery apart is the use of perishable materials like plants in these offerings. Nicholas Dunning, a professor emeritus at the University of Cincinnati, pointed out that while ethnohistorical sources have long indicated the use of perishable materials, it is rare to find them archaeologically due to their rapid decomposition in tropical climates. The team’s use of environmental DNA allowed them to identify several plant species, including a hallucinogenic morning glory known as xtabentun, lancetwood, chiles, and jool, which was used to wrap ceremonial offerings.

The location of the ceremonial reservoir discussed in the text is circled in red
The location of the ceremonial reservoir discussed in the text is circled in red. Credit: Atasta Flores Esquivel / David Lentz / Verónica A. Vázquez López / PLOS ONE

Eric Tepe, a botanist and associate professor at the University of California, highlighted the unique aspect of these findings. The fact that these four plants, which have known cultural significance for the Maya, were found in a concentrated sample indicates that this was a deliberate and purposeful collection placed under this platform, Tepe said.

The discovery provides valuable insights into the religious and ceremonial practices of the ancient Maya. The ballcourt was more than a place for competitive games like pok-a-tok, which was similar to modern-day basketball or soccer; it was a sacred site with spiritual and religious significance.

Despite the groundbreaking nature of the findings, interpreting these ancient practices remains challenging. The team noted the difficulty in deciphering the intent and meaning behind ceremonial offerings from 2,000 years of prehistory. However, Lentz believes that these findings contribute to a broader understanding of the complex and sophisticated culture of the ancient Maya.

View of the ball court at Monte Albán
View of the ball court at Monte Albán. Credit: Bobak Ha’Eri / Wikimedia Commons

While the ancient Maya were known for their advanced engineering, including water filtration systems and conservation practices, they faced challenges such as prolonged droughts and deforestation caused by agricultural expansion.

Yet their ability to integrate religious and ceremonial practices into their daily lives underscores the depth and complexity of their civilization.

To me, the ancient Maya represent the yin and yang of human existence, Lentz said. It’s what makes them so fascinating.


Sources

University of Cincinnati | Lentz DL, Hamilton TL, Meyers SA, Dunning NP, Reese-Taylor K, Hernández AA, et al. (2024) Psychoactive and other ceremonial plants from a 2,000-year-old Maya ritual deposit at Yaxnohcah, Mexico. PLoS ONE 19(4): e0301497. doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0301497


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