Pelota purépecha is a Mesoamerican ball sport with great similarity to field hockey, though unique in that it is sometimes played with a ball lit on fire. Oral tradition relates that within its ancient origins, the sport symbolized a battle between the sun and the moon, with the players representing movement of the stars and universe. Evidence of the sport reaches back to 1500 BC, and as it is still played in some regions of Mexico today, it may be one of the oldest hockey sports still in practice.
Origins and History
Pelota purépecha may have ties as far back as 1500 BC, as murals at the Palacio de Tepantitla, located in the ancient city of Teotihuacan in the Valley of Mexico, seem to depict the sport. Archaeological footprints of this game are scarce, however, so it is difficult to determine much of its history. Most of what we know has been passed down through oral tradition since an unknown point in history.
How to Play
As the rules to the ancient sport have been lost, the modern rendition is detailed here.
Two teams of 5 or more players meet on a roughly 38-yard by 8-yard field. The objective is to pass the ball (called the zapandukua) through the opposing team’s goal at the end of the field. Each player wields a hockey-like stick (called the jatsíraku) with which to manipulate the ball. Players are not allowed to touch the ball with their bodies, including the hands and feet. Modern games are played with a score or time limit. With a lack of timekeeping equipment in ancient times, it’s likely that the ancient rendition of the sport usually played to a certain score.
In a variant of the sport, the players set the ball on fire and play at night. Oral tradition relates that this aspect of the sport has been around throughout its entire history, though this isn’t feasible to confirm or deny. It’s possible the flaming ball could have served as a time limit for the night version of the game, bringing it to an end when the flame died out, though this is only speculation.
The jatsíraku sticks used today are traditionally hand carved from cherry wood or Mexican hawthorn. When playing the fireball variant of the sport, these sticks become fairly charred at the end. The ancient rendition of pelota purépecha would have used hand carved sticks as well, possibly from some of the same materials.
Oral tradition relates that the ball originally was crafted with hundreds of monarch butterfly cocoons, though this is difficult to verify. As rubber balls were produced throughout Mesoamerica as early as the 2nd millennium BC, it’s possible these could have been used as well. However, this is only speculation, as no archaeological evidence seems to connect rubber balls with pelota purépecha. The flaming ball was traditionally made of wood soaked in pine resin.
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Trans World Sport. (2013, March 9th). Crazy Fireball Hockey [Video file]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/end2M3lBrM4
Hosler, D. (1999). Prehistoric Polymers: Rubber Processing in Ancient Mesoamerica. Science, 284 (5422), 1988-1991. doi:10.1126/science.284.5422.1988