Ballcourts– formally constructed spaces for the playing of games using rubber balls– are found across much of the territory of modern Honduras, although not every settlement, or even every large settlement, has a ballcourt.
Finding ballcourts was unexpected when settlement pattern research was conducted in Yoro and the Mosquitia in the 1990s.
In 1939, Samuel Lothrop had used ballcourts as a key to defining the “frontier” of Mesoamerica that he thought ran through western Honduras. His frontier went through the Ulua River valley on the Caribbean coast of Honduras, and the eastern edge of the Comayagua valley in central Honduras. It included all the sites then known that had ballcourts, which he thought were evidence of a Mesoamerican identity.
When ballcourts were found east of this line, along the Cuyumapa River in the modern Department of Yoro, and even further east, in the Mosquitia, those findings challenged the traditional model. What were ballcourts doing “outside” Mesoamerica? What were they doing?
Answers to these questions in modern archaeology don’t involve trying to trace the boundary of a “civilization”: they involve trying to think about why people living in these particular places went to the effort to build these stone courts; how the courts they built compare to those known from neighboring areas; and what they were actually doing in these courts.
Because ball games require two teams, each ball court implies two sides, either two factions within the local town, or locals and visitors. Ballcourts can be seen as indications of friendly competition, contained by being channeled into a sport. They were also opportunities for individual participants to stand out through their athletic abilities. In addition to playing ball games (which can only be inferred from the ball court itself), excavations around ballcourts in Yoro found evidence that people were drinking together during the events held at the ballcourts.
In Yoro, ballcourts were built in two different kinds of sites: smaller and larger, the larger more centrally located on main rivers, the smaller upstream. These smaller and larger ballcourts were turned in slightly different directions: some roughly at the part of the eastern horizon where the sun rose in the winter, others at the area on the eastern horizon where the sun rose in the summer.
This gave a pattern where some ballcourts were located in locations that would have been gathering places in summer, and others in locations that would have been visited in winter.
The summer ballcourts were located upriver, near where most of these farmers had their agricultural fields. The winter ballcourts were on the main rivers, convenient for visitors coming along the rivers from farther away, but requiring local farmers to leave behind their own villages if they wanted to witness, or compete in, ball games.
The different orientations of ballcourts in Yoro not only associated them with different seasons: they emphasized that ballcourts and ballgames were tied to beliefs about the origins of the world, about supernatural beings and the relations of the living to the dead. The sun’s rising and setting every day, replayed the first sunrise of legend, and its seasonal movement related the ballcourt to cycles of growth of plants, and through them, of people. It was not surprising to find evidence around ballcourts that people burned resins, a gesture used to honor ancestors and gods.
Ballcourts in other areas of Honduras would have had their own local significance, not necessarily similar to those in Yoro. But in each area, the presence of ballcourts implies playing a game with two teams, in which the outcome of the game created a hierarchy between the teams. That hierarchy at the same time showed that both teams shared a level of identity sufficient to allow them to follow the same rules.
When visitors played ballgames in the Mosquitia, they would have used the same techniques of play as those playing ballgames in Yoro, and at other places like Copan, Tenampua, Los Naranjos, La Sierra, Travesia, and Cerro Palenque. Playing ballgames in courts of similar size, shape, and construction created an identification among the people from these and other ball-game playing sites across wide regions, much like today, international players who learn the rules and manner of play of soccer, baseball, or basketball can compete with each other without any other form of connection. Ballcourts, which required certain manners of playing, helped shape players from different areas who could recognize each other as sharing this one practice, even if in many other ways, from language to political authority to family ties, they were quite different.