The Aztecs were a Mesoamerican culture that spoke Nahuatl and dominated large parts of central Mexico from the 14th to the 16th centuries. Many people in Mexico today can claim to be descendants of Aztecs and their capital city of Tenochtitlan is now modern-day Mexico City. The Aztecs had an advanced society and a rich culture, but it is their brutal tradition of human sacrifice that many remember today. Here are just a few startling facts showing how the Aztecs were so much more than just sacrifices.
They Had Celebrity Athletes
The Aztecs played a ballgame that was popular with Mesoamerican cultures which they called ullamaliztli. The game was played on a large narrow ballcourt with slanted sides. At the top of each side wall was a vertical hoop that the players would bounce a rubber ball through in order to score a point. Players could only use their hips to hit the ball, though some versions may have allowed for elbows or knees.
The game had religious significance for the Aztecs, and the largest ballcourt in the capital of Tenochtitlan was even called Teotlachco (the holy ballcourt). The game represented the battle of the sun god Huitzilopochtli against the forces of night led by the moon goddess and the stars. The game was also played for fun and not just as ritual, and while it may have been enjoyed by children, it was mostly a pastime of the nobles.
Children were taught how to play the sport while in school and just like today, if a child showed skill in the sport they could become famous enough to play the sport professionally. Successful players would travel to different city wards where they would play for large crowds. The crowds would participate with heavy betting in order to try and make money through the skill of their favorite ballplayers. A ballplayer that frequently won would find themselves something of a celebrity in the towns that they visited.
The sport was so prized and so popular that citizens would do just about anything to be able to bet on it. When Spanish chronicler Diego Duran visited the Aztec cities he was shocked to see that people were willing to sell their own children in order to have money to bet. If they were without children, a person might stake their own life, becoming a slave if they lost a bet. In 1528, Cortes even sent a team of ballplayers to Spain to perform for Charles V, where the Europeans became fascinated with the bouncing rubber balls.