Ulama (game)

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Sinaloan ulama player in action. Ulama 37 (Aguilar).jpg
Sinaloan ulama player in action.

Ulama (Spanish pronunciation:  [uˈlama] ) is a ball game played in Mexico, currently experiencing a revival from its home in a few communities in the state of Sinaloa. As a descendant of the Aztec version of the Mesoamerican ballgame, [1] the game is regarded as one of the oldest continuously played sports in the world and as the oldest known game using a rubber ball.



The word ulama comes from the Nahuatl word ōllamaliztli [oːlːamaˈlistɬi] a combination of ōllamas [ˈoːlːama] (playing of a game with a ball) and ōllei [ˈoːlːi] (rubber). Ōllamaliztli was the Aztec name for the Mesoamerican ballgame, whose roots extended back to at least the 2nd millennium BC and evidence of which has been found in nearly all Mesoamerican cultures in an area extending from modern-day Mexico to El Salvador, and possibly in modern-day Arizona and New Mexico. [2] Archaeologists have uncovered rubber balls dating to at least 1600 BC, [3] ballgamer figures from at least 1200 BC, and nearly 1500 ancient ball courts. [2] [4]

Due to its religious and ritual aspects, Spanish Catholics suppressed the game soon after the Spanish conquest. It survived in areas such as Sinaloa, where Spanish influence was less pervasive. [5]

As part of its nationwide revival, the game now has a home in the capital Mexico City, at a cultural centre in the Azcapotzalco neighbourhood. [6]


Ulama games are played on a temporary court called a tastei ( [tas.te] , from tlachtli [ˈt͡ɬat͡ʃt͡ɬi] , the Nahuatl word meaning "ballcourt"). The bounds of these long narrow courts are made by drawing or chalking thick lines in the dirt. The courts are divided into opposing sides by a center line, called an analco. A ball that is allowed to cross the end line, the chichi or chivo, will result in a point scored for the opposing team. Points or rayas ("lines", so named for the tally marks used to keep score) are gained in play. The scoring system provides for resetting the score to zero under certain conditions, which can make for lengthy games.

The modern-day game has three main forms:

The object of the game is to keep the ball in play and in-bounds. Depending on the score and the local variant of the rules, the ball is played either high or low. A team scores a point when a player of the opposing team hits the ball out of turn, misses the ball, knocks the ball out of bounds, touches the ball with any part of the body aside from the hip, accidentally touches a teammate, lets the ball stop moving before it reaches the center line, or even if they fail to announce the score after they have scored a point.

The first team that scores eight points wins. If both teams end up having the same number of points after a turn, both sides begin again from zero. One record-setting game reportedly lasted for eight days.[ citation needed ] Most modern games are stopped after about two hours.

Aztec ullamaliztli players performing for Charles V in Spain, drawn by Christoph Weiditz in 1528. Note the similarity in dress to the modern-day ulama player above. Weiditz Trachtenbuch 010-011.jpg
Aztec ullamaliztli players performing for Charles V in Spain, drawn by Christoph Weiditz in 1528. Note the similarity in dress to the modern-day ulama player above.

Ulama balls

See also Mesoamerican rubber balls

See also


  1. Leyenaar (2001) p. 123.
  2. 1 2 Fox, John. The ball : discovering the object of the game, 1st ed., New York : Harper, 2012. ISBN   978-0-06-188179-4. Cf. Chapter 4: "Sudden Death in the New World" about the Ulama game.
  3. See El Manati article for information on recovery of the earliest rubber balls.
  4. Taladoire counts 1560 courts discovered as of the year 2000, p. 98.
  5. Leyenaar (2001) p. 128.
  6. In pictures: The ancient ballgame making a comeback, BBC, 4 September 2019
  7. For a more in-depth look at hip ulama and forearm ulama, see Leyenaar (2001).
  8. Federación Mexicana de Juegos y Deportes Autóctonos y Tradicionales, A.C.

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