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One of three stacked tombs newly discovered within a pyramid, this vividly painted chamber is unique among ancient Zapotec funerary architecture, Mexican archaeologists announced in late July.
Dating from about A.D. 650 to 850, the funerary complex was part of an elite neighborhood of the Zapotec, an agrarian culture that once thrived throughout what's now the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca.
"Painted motifs in funerary contexts are quite usual in this culture," excavation director Nelly Robles García said. "But at other sites they show important people: priests, warriors, and rulers—most likely the deceased."
No humans appear here. Instead, the designs seem to refer to the sacred ritual ball game played by many pre-Hispanic peoples in Mesoamerica. A bit like soccer combined with basketball, the game involved hitting a hard rubber ball around a court, and sometimes ended in sacrificial death for the losers.
These examples and others are cited by many researchers who have made compelling arguments that the ballgame served as a way to defuse or resolve conflicts without genuine warfare, to settle disputes through a ballgame instead of a battle. Over time, then, the ballgame's role would expand to include not only external mediation, but also the resolution of competition and conflict within the society as well.
This "boundary maintenance" or "conflict resolution" theory would also account for some of the irregular distribution of ballcourts. Overall, there appears to be a negative correlation between the degree of political centralization and the number of ballcourts at a site. For example, the Aztec Empire, with a strong centralized state and few external rivals, had relatively few ballcourts while Middle Classic Cantona, with 24 ballcourts, had many diverse cultures residing there under a relatively weak state.
Little is known with certainty about the game's symbolic contents. Several themes recur in scholarly writing.
Astronomy. The bouncing ball is thought to have represented the sun. The stone scoring rings are speculated to signify sunrise and sunset, or equinoxes.
War. This is the most obvious symbolic aspect of the game (see also above, "Proxy for warfare"). Among the Mayas, the ball can represent the vanquished enemy, both in the late-Postclassic K'iche' kingdom (Popol Vuh), and in Classic kingdoms such as that of Yaxchilan.
Fertility. Formative period ballplayer figurines - most likely females - often wear maize icons. At El Tajin, the ballplayer sacrifice ensures the renewal of pulque, an alcoholic maguey cactus beverage.
Cosmologic duality. The game is seen as a struggle between day and night, and/or a battle between life and the underworld. Courts were considered portals to the underworld and were built in key locations within the central ceremonial precincts. Playing ball engaged one in the maintenance of the cosmic order of the universe and the ritual regeneration of life.