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Ancient Mesoamericans had invented rubber balls as early as 1600 BC

Ian Harvey

By 1600 BC the rubber ball had already been invented by the Ancient Mesoamericans.  They made these balls in a variety of sizes; they were solid and were used in a ballgame as well as being burnt as offerings in temples or buried in bogs as a sacrifice.

Rubber was made from the latex that comes from the rubber tree in ancient times.  It was a tree that was native to the area of southern Mexico and Central America.

To make the latex into rubber, people had to combine it with the juice of a species of morning glory. This not only made rubber, but the ancient civilizations were able to make it in different grades. The Aztec, Maya, and Olmec peoples of Mesoamerica also made rubber.  The juice of the morning glory made the latex less brittle when it set.

A solid rubber ball used (or similar to those used) in the Mesoamerican ballgame, 300 BCE to 250 CE, Kaminaljuyu  Photo Credit

A solid rubber ball used (or similar to those used) in the Mesoamerican ballgame, 300 BCE to 250 CE, Kaminaljuyu  Photo Credit

Scientists today have experimented with mixing the latex and juice and found they could create a rubber that bounced well for playing a ballgame, but also others that are hard-wearing and could be made into sandals which were worn by the Mayans, as the Spanish conquistadors had described. Archaeological evidence has found preserved balls of rubber in sacrificial bogs. For the people in the Mesoamerican area, rubber was a symbol of fertility.

The ballgame which historians believed was played at the time, was thought to have been a hip-ball game with a rubber ball the size of a modern volleyball.  There was also a stickball game with a baseball-sized ball.  No balls from any ball games have actually been recovered yet, so this is only an educated guess.

 

In this detail from the late 15th century Codex Borgia, the Aztec god Xiuhtecuhtli brings a rubber ball offering to a temple

In this detail from the late 15th century Codex Borgia, the Aztec god Xiuhtecuhtli brings a rubber ball offering to a temple

Only 100 or so balls have been discovered at various sites. In ancient Mayan texts, the ball games had a religious meaning.  It was very likely for the game to end in human sacrifice– whether of a participant or from a different source.

Read another story from us: Important facts about the lost ancient civilization of Mesoamerica, the Toltecs

It has not been a surprise to most historians that cultures as the Aztecs were able to make rubber.  They were considered a scientific people, especially with their metallurgy. The historians, who experimented with the raw materials, discovered that when the latex and juice were combined in a warm environment, it took only ten minutes for the rubber to form, so the craftsman of that period had only a short window of time for making what they wanted.  The balls found were consisted of strips of rubber wrapped around in layers to form the round shape.