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Who’s up for Ulama?

January 27th, 2012

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Still played in a few communities in the Mexican state of Sinaloa, Ulama – a descendant of the Aztec version of the Mesoamerican ballgame – is one of the oldest, continuously played sports in the world.

Ulama games are played on a temporary court, called a taste (prouncned “tas-tay”), with bounds made by drawing thick lines in the dirt. Courts are divided into opposing sides by a center line (as in tennis). The object of the game is to keep the ball in bounds, so a ball that crosses the end line of the opposing side results in a point for the opposing team. As for point scoring, the rules of the game are in a constant flux, sometimes not even understood by the players. In a match, each team will bring a veedor, or an elder, whose job is to settle disputes over the rules.

The modern versions of the game consist of three main forms:

  • Ulama de cadera or hip ulama A hip ulama team has five or more players, with as many as twelve, wearing loin cloths with leather hip pads to protect against the heavy rubber ball.
  • Ulama de antebrazo or forearm ulama Played on a smaller field with teams of one to three players and uses a lighter ball. Players are required to return the ball using their wrapped forearms.
  • Ulama de mazo or Ulama de palo A heavy two-handed wooden paddle is used to strike a 1 lb ball, usually played with teams of 3 or 4 people.

The team that gets to eight points (or rayas) first, wins. However, the scoring system provides for resetting the score to zero upon certain conditions, which can make for pretty lengthy games. One record-setting game reputedly lasted for eight days, but most games today are stopped after two hours.

Ulama and the Mesoamerican ballgame both had important ritual aspects, and were held as ritual events, often featuring human sacrifice, although the ritual sacrifice of the losers is thought to have died out in the 1300s.

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