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The Mesoamerican Origin of North American Stickball

In the mid-20th century Mexican archaeologists discovered a series of beautiful, polychrome murals on the walls of large house in the ruins of Teotihuacan. Teotihuacan was a large city located northeast of present day Mexico City that dominated much of Mexico between 100 BC and 600 AD. The city was abandoned around 750 AD. It could have had an population of over 200,000 persons at its peak size.

There is little consensus among scholars about the meanings of the Tepantitla murals. An exception to this controversy is those frescoes that clearly portray athletes playing three types of ball games. One Mesoamerican ballgame appears to be very similar to soccer (international football.) The players are wearing minimal clothing and are shown kicking a large ball. The ball possibly was made of leather, stuffed with cotton, instead of rubber.

Stickball players

This is a close-up view of a section of the Tepantitla murals.

The second sport pictured involved minimally clothed athletes hitting a small ball with a stick or bat. The ball was probably rubber, but this is not known for sure. The object of the game was to hit a goal placed on top of a post or stone column. The games were probably very similar to contemporary field hockey. Some illustrations of Mesoamerican stickball show the sticks, curved at the end like hockey sticks. This sport was apparently very dangerous. One Tepantitla mural shows a severely injured player and a dead player on the side of the playing field.

The third set of murals portrayed heavily padded players with helmets, using their hips, knees, elbows and heads to hit a rubber ball the size of a large grapefruit into a goal in the shape of an ornate bollard. This form of ball game seems to have been the most popular. It is frequently portrayed in the art of later Mesoamerican civilizations, using a stone ring as a permanent goal.

Apparently, all three types of Mesoamerican ballgames were played by people of many ages and both genders. Ball courts could be found in almost any town of significant size. It was a popular sport for amateurs, but there were also male and female professional players. Nations, cities and leaders would often settle disputes with hard fought ball games. There are several carvings in the stone walls of ball courts in major cities which depict players being sacrificed at the end of the game. Apparently, these games had ritualistic significance.

There are no eyewitness accounts of the “stick-less” form of Mesoamerican ballgames being played north of the Rio Grande River. There is one piece of evidence that does suggest that it was played in at least one location. Archaeologists found a finely carved stone figurine pipe at Spiro Mounds, OK. The Spiro Site is on the Arkansas River near the Arkansas Line. The figurine portrays a male wearing the helmet and “armor” of a Mesoamerican ballplayer, cutting off the head of another human. See the links below for more details on Spiro Mounds. A photograph of the figurine is included in the attached images.

North American Stickball

North American stickball today is played with 2-3 feet (61-96 cm) wooden stick with a loop at one end that holds a woven mesh or leather “basket.” The ball is made of deer hide over a tightly packed filler. The object of the game is to hit a target on top of a pole. The game has many versions, but usually the goal is an animal skull or effigy of an animal. During the 1700s and 1800s, as earlier in Mesoamerica, stickball was often utilized to settle disagreements between villages or tribes, without going to war.

Most Native American tribes considered stickball to be a form of worship of the Creator. There is no evidence of North American stickball being associated with human sacrifice, however. Like its Mesoamerican counterpart, serious injuries were common and deaths of players were not unusual.

When contact was first made between British and French colonists and Native Americans, the sticks used in North American stickball were generally solid wood with a curved or spoon shaped end. The sticks became more sophisticated after metal tools from Europe were available.

Lacrosse was originally the French Quebecois name for Native American stickball. Once the game was played by European athletes, the rules and playing field changed to be more like field hockey. The biggest difference between lacrosse and traditional American Indian stickball is that the object of lacrosse is to sling a ball into a box net, similar in design to that of field hockey or soccer.

Ball court architecture, south and north of the border

The oldest known Mesoamerican ball court was found at the Formative Period town site of Paso de la Amada on the Pacific Coast of the Mexican state of Chiapas. The ancient town site is very close to the Guatemalan border. Its ball court has been dated to about 1,400 BC. The court consists of parallel earth berms approximately 262 feet (80 m) long and 26.2 feet (8 m) wide. A few centuries later, the courts in several regions became U-shaped with a single timber as a goal post. Regions with goal posts at both ends remained to be composed of two parallel earth berms. Over the next 2,000 years ball courts in the towns and villages of Mexico changed very little. It was only in the large cities that more sophisticated stone masonry ball courts were constructed. They usually had I-shaped plans and sloped stone bulwarks for seating elite spectators. These were the “superdomes” of their era.

Archaeologists have not been able to determine when stickball was first played in eastern North America. Some form of this game may be common to several indigenous peoples of the Americas and date back thousands of years. However, it is known when the first formal ball courts were constructed, even though most North American archaeologists do not seem to be aware that these structures were identical to ball courts constructed in Mexico from 1400 BC onward.

In the mid-1970s archaeologists raced to excavate a Middle Woodland Period village in Greene County, GA before it was partially covered by the waters of Lake Oconee. The Cold Springs Mounds site is in the vicinity of where Nashville singing star (and Creek Nation citizen) Carrie Underwood married hockey star, Mike Fisher, three decades later. The site is now either under water or covered with large vacation homes.

The archaeologists were primarily focusing on two mounds, whose construction was completed in the 400s AD. However, they noticed a relatively low U-shaped earthwork that defined the village’s plaza. They commented that they had seen this U-shaped earthwork in some other Swift Creek villages and pondered what its function would be. Some Swift Creek towns had parallel earth berms, some had U-shaped earth berms, while some apparently had no earth berms in their plazas.

The Swift Creek Culture and its antecedents thrived in the lower Southeast during exactly the same time period that Teotihuacan dominated Mexico (100 BC-600 AD.) Swift Creek Culture people were known for their permanent towns, pyramidal ceremonial mounds and beautiful pottery. Many Swift Creek villages and towns were abandoned at about the same time that the public buildings at Teotihuacan were burned, c. 600 AD. Some Swift Creek villages continued to be occupied until the time when Teotihuacan was abandoned, c. 750 AD. A vestige of the Swift Creek Culture survived along the headwaters of the Savannah River until around 1000 AD.

Some time between 400 AD and 600 AD a large U-shaped ball court was constructed at the enormous Ortona town site near Lake Okeechobee, FL. The earthen court is immediately east of a 350 feet (106.8 m) long pond that is in the shape of a Maya ceremonial mace. These structures are illustrated in the attached images.

There is no doubt that the U-shaped and I-shape earth berms found in some Swift Creek Culture towns were ball courts. Exactly the same structures were still being built in Georgia and Alabama by the Creek Indians 1,500 years later. The Creek Indian ball courts were drawn and verbally described by botanist, William Bartram, when he explored the Southeast between 1773 and 1776. Models of the ball courts that are based on Bartram’s drawings are included in images, which accompanies this article.

The probable reason that scholars of lacrosse and stickball are not aware of the architectural link between Mexico and the Southeastern United States, is that intercollegiate lacrosse competition is primarily played today in the regions north of where the earthen ball courts were found. Archaeologists, who focus on the Southeastern Indians. apparently presume that the ball courts in Mexico all looked like the stone superdome constructed in the major cities.

The models of ball courts, built by Native peoples living in northern and western Mexico provide more evidence of a cultural connection between their region and the Southeast. The figurines in the models generally are wearing turbans. From about 800 AD onward, the ancestors of the Creek Indians wore cloth turbans, not feathers. Photos of four famous ball court models from Mexico are included in the slide show.

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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history. Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.

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