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Ulama, the world's oldest ballgame

From the Economist, we learn a bit of sports history, both recent and ancient:

IT IS a strange coincidence that many popular sports played today with a ball, big or small, were first played in the latter half of the 19th century. Only cricket set its rules earlier, in 1788. Basketball was invented in 1891. Other sports had antecedents: soccer, rugby and American football were all formalised in the 1860s and 1870s from what appears to be a common origin, while baseball was standardised around that time, as was golf—though many Scots claim earlier origins. Tennis as we know it today was devised by Major Walter Clopton Wingfield, a British army officer, for the entertainment of guests at his country estate in 1873. Tennis, though, is an exception in that the indoor form of the game was played with formal rules in England and France at least as far back as 1600. But even this is recent compared with ulama, a game once played all over Mesoamerica, from the American Southwest to Peru.

The oldest ulama court, in the Mexican state of Chiapas, was built around 1500BC, while latex balls used by the Olmecs, farther west, have been carbon-dated to 300-500 years earlier. This is not to say the rules of ulama have not changed over the years—ritual sacrifice of the losers is thought to have died out in the 1300s. But, says Manuel Aguilar, a professor at California State University, in Los Angeles, who studies the game, it is unique in having a continual recorded history stretching back almost 4,000 years.

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