Published on January 23, 2012 by Casey
Ancient Mesoamericans were the first people to invent rubber balls, sometime before 1600 BCE, and used them in a variety of roles. The Mesoamerican ballgame, for example, employed various sizes of solid rubber balls and balls were burned as offerings in temples, buried in votive deposits, and laid in sacred bogs and cenotes.
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Ancient rubber was made from latex of the rubber tree (Castilla elastica), which is indigenous to the tropical areas of southern Mexico and Central America. The latex was made into rubber by mixing it with the juice of what was likely Ipomoea alba (a species of morning glory), a process which preceded Goodyear’s vulcanization by several millennia.The resultant rubber would then be formed into rubber strips, which would be wound around a solid rubber core to build the ball.
Archaeological evidence indicates that rubber was already in use in Mesoamerica by the Early Formative Period – a dozen balls were found in the Olmec El Manati sacrificial bog and dated to roughly 1600 BCE. By the time of the Spanish Conquest, 3000 years later, rubber was being exported from the tropical zones to sites all over Mesoamerica.
Iconography suggests that although there were many uses for rubber, rubber balls both for offerings and for ritual ballgames were the primary products. To both the Aztecs and the Maya, the rubber latex that flowed from the tree represented blood and semen.Rubber was therefore symbolic of fertility, and was often burned, buried, or (fortunately for archaeology) laid in a sacrificial pool as an offering to various deities.