It’s well-known by historians that many pre-Columbian societies enjoyed playing ball games, though the details of these games remain scarce. At the site of Piedra Labrada, where archaeologists have discovered 50 buildings, five ball courts have also been revealed—along with over 20 sculptures.
And until now, those sculptures of anthropomorphic figures, snails, and snake heads, were fairly standard subject matter for this sort of site. Mesoamericans often painted their sculptures in red and ritually “killed” them as offerings in year-end rituals—meaning they broke the statues into pieces and buried them.
But at Piedra Labrada, archaeologists discovered something unusual… a 5 foot, 4 inches tall granite statue of a pre-Columbian ball player! That said, the statue was discovered decapitated—but that’s not too strange, considering the ritual use of some statues (as previously mentioned).
Archaeologists identified what the statue was supposed to be by its attributes—the head has a carved helmet, and the figure is wearing a yugo around the waist. A yugo is like a belt, but much stronger, in order to protect the mid-section of the body during ball games.
One of the figure’s wrists also has a what’s being called a protective yoke, which matches with the few details of pre-Columbian ball games that we do know. In some games, players used a heavy rubber ball that would be thrown from one side of the ball court to the other—and sometimes, the ball could only be hit with the wrist!
The statue was found in the largest of Piedra Labrada’s ball courts; the court platform is shaped like an “I”, running about 131 feet long.
Initial study of the Mesoamerican statue has archaeologists speculating that it might have been carved around 600 A.D. by the Mixtec, an indigenous people of the area. Plenty of additional study will be needed, but that’s no surprise—archaeologists are really just getting started on their understanding and investigation into the city’s history, having only begun work here about a year ago.