Guy Hepp, associate professor of anthropology, was one of the experts interviewed for an episode of the History Channel series “Dark Marvels.” The episode, “Bloodsports,” explores “the origins of history’s deadliest games – from Roman bloodsports to Russian Roulette,” according to the show’s synopsis.
Hepp, whose primary research emphasizes the early complex societies of Mesoamerica, appeared in a segment about the Maya ballgame, which has its roots in Mesoamerica going back at least 3,000 years. Played on an I-shaped stone court, the Maya ballgame shared some common themes with soccer, including the aim of getting the ball through a goal without the use of the hands. Though it is portrayed as a violent and brutal sport in the episode, Hepp was careful to emphasize the diversity of Mesoamerican ballgames played by different groups, as well as their religious and political significance.
Hepp said the games likely took place at significant times in the Maya calendar, and that they may have sometimes been “a proxy for warfare. It could be a way to work out intergroup conflicts, border politics, and those sorts of things.”
He also discussed how the sport is mentioned in the Popul Vuh, an ancient Mesoamerican text detailing the creation story of the Maya. Part of that story focuses on the hero twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, who used their skills as ballplayers and their intelligence and magical abilities to outwit and defeat the lords of Xibalba, the Underworld.