Ulama: The Pre-Columbian ballgame played in Latin America

What is Ulama?

Ulama is an original game from the pre-Columbian period. It is known as “pok-ta-pok” by the Mayans, “ullamaliztli” by the Aztecs and as “juego de pelota” (ball game) by the Spanish conquerors. 

History of the game

Ulama is a game of ancient origin, it is estimated that it was created 3500 years ago. It was the first team sport in history, as far as historians know. The Olmec, a civilization that existed in what is now south-central Mexico between 1200 BC and 400 BC, are believed to have created the game. Ulama also had a great importance in the religious context of the people. Ulama also had a great importance in the religious context of the people. For the Aztecs, for example, the game represented a combat that took place daily in the “ball court” of the underworld where the sun fought the night to dawn.

Aztec man playing Ulama. Drawn by Christoph Weiditz in 1528.

How to play Ulama

Ulama is played on a field measuring approximately 225 feet long and 13 feet wide. This field is divided into two halves by a line called ‘analco’.

There are 3 main forms of playing modern Ulama:

  • Hip ulama
  • Ulama del pazo
  • Forearm ulama

Hip ulama is played with two five-man teams that are only permitted to bounce the ball with their hips after the first throw. This form uses rubber balls which can weigh up to 9 pounds. The other two modalities use lighter balls and the number of players also decreases: Ulama del pazo has either 3 or 4 players and uses a 1 pound ball. Forearm ulama has small teams of 1 to 3 players and players have to strike the ball only using their wrapped forearm.

The objective in all three forms of play is to keep the ball inbounds. The team that first scores eight points wins.

Sinaloan Ulama player - By Photograph: Manuel Aguilar-Moreno / CSULA Ulama Project

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