Did Basketball Originate From The Mayans?

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Dr. James Naismith is the founder of Basketball.

The origin of basketball is a story known by several fans throughout the world.

We all know that. His game combined elements of several popular sports of that time. Since then, his game became popular and is played worldwide. However, what if there was another game that precedes Naismith’s?  What if another game is the origin of basketball? Is it possible that another ancient game is the true origin of basketball? James Naismith studied games like rugby, football, lacrosse, baseball, and soccer and observed the equipment.

Was Naismith influenced by another game as well? Or, was his game’s similarities to the ancient game coincidental? The ancient game’s origins date back to 1400 BC.   The game in question had a ball similar to basketball. It even had stone hoops as the game evolved. Is it possible that this game is the true basketball origin?

Mesoamerican Ball Game

Naismith invented basketball in 1891 when he created an indoor game to keep his students active. He created his game and called it basketball.  In order to determine the basketball origin, the ancient game must be studied. The ancient game preceding Naismith’s was in Mesoamerica, which is a region in present-day Central America. It is one of the oldest team sports in the world. Mesoamerican civilizations such as the Aztecs, the Mayans, and the Olmecs participated in a ball game similar to basketball. The Mayans referred to the game as Pok-a-tok and the Aztecs called the game Tlachtli. The Aztec games and the Mayan ball game had different names, variations, and rules, but the basics were the same. These aspects could possibly affect the justification of the game being the origin of basketball.


The ball game known as Pok-a-tok combined elements of modern basketball and soccer. Pok-a-tok involved a team of players whose goal was to get the ball through a hoop. The game differed by region. It is like soccer, where the ball goes into a ground goal. Or, it was played like basketball, where the ball must go through the hoop mounted above the court. The objective was to pass the ball and score without letting it touch your hands. In this game, the player passed the ball with their hips and lower body. The ballgames were entertainment for the ancient civilizations and large crowds spectated the games. In some cases, some fans would gamble and bet on which team would win.

The Mesoamerican Ball Game was a matter of life or death!

The Mesoamerican ballgame entertained fans, but it also had religious and ritual characteristics. It also was a way for groups to settle a conflict.  In the game, movement of the ball symbolized the movement of the sun crossing the sky. It was a battle of day and night where the sun passes through the Underworld before rising at dawn. The game also involved sacrifice. The winners of the game received gifts and called favored by gods. The losing team (or its leader) were sometimes sacrificed and killed. The Mesoamericans believed that sacrifice was necessary for their gods.  However, sacrifice was not mandatory or required. It was still for entertainment and recreation. The game was potentially dangerous, due to potentially sacrifice and injuries, but it remained a popular sport.

Ball Courts of Pok-A-Tok

The oldest Mesoamerican ball court is Paso de la Amada in Mexico. The court is nearly 3600 years old. The largest court is in Chichén Itzá. It is 316 feet (96.5 meters) long and 98 feet (30 meters) wide. Several ballcourts (1500) are in Mesoamerican.  Courts throughout Mesoamerica may differ in size or style. They usually have a central playing area with end zones at both ends. The sides of the court could have a large vertical stone ring set into the wall. The courts had stone blocks and slanted walls. The slanted wall had images of animals or images of sacrifice, which played a part in some games.

Pok-A-Tok’s Equipment

Teams played the game with a rubber ball. The ball weighed up to 3 to 8 pounds with a diameter of 10-12 inches. It was the size of a basketball, but heavier and harder. In other words, the ball was dangerous. If the ball struck a player it could cause bruising, bleeding, or even death. Players wore helmets as well as pads and stone belts. The belts, called yugos were a way for players to hit and pass the ball. Teams of players (two to six players) would hit this ball with their lower body to keep it in play. They kept the ball in play in order to score a goal by getting the ball over the goal line. Then, the Mayans added stone hoops to the game, which were in the center of the court. The hoops add to the mystique of Pok-A-Tok being the origin of basketball.pok-a-tok

Pok-A-Tok: The Origin of Basketball?

Many fans enjoy the game of basketball today. Therefore, it is important to know the origin of basketball. Dr. James Naismith is the inventor of modern basketball. His game combined different elements of other sports (and a childhood game), but he created something new. Naismith created his game without any knowledge of the ancient ball game played by Mesoamericans. The Mesoamericans invented a team game similar to popular sports of today (such as soccer and basketball). Their game (Pok-A-Tok or Tlachtli) had its own equipment, rules, and customs. Pok-A-Tok and Basketball may have their similarities, but their similarities are coincidental. The games have similarities but can coincide in today’s sports culture. That’s probably also why the Basketball Hall of Fame pays no attention to it. The game known as Pok-A-Tok is still played today but has evolved into Ulama. It is fair to say that Pok-A-Tok is similar to basketball, but the origin of Basketball is through James Naismith and the creation of his game.

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