ALAMBRA, Calif. — For thousands of years, cultures in pre-contact Central America played a game called Ullamalizli, or Ulama for short, that involved hitting solid rubber balls with either the hips, forearms or fists. But Ulama was more than just a game.

According to California State University, Los Angeles professor Manuel Aguilar-Moreno, Ulama was as much a spiritual and political endeavor as it was a recreational one.

“Ulama had many purposes. It was used as a reenactment of the dynamics of the universe. The ball represented the sun, and they believed if the sun stops, life stops. That’s why both teams tried to keep the ball moving at all times,” Aguilar-Moreno said.

According to Aguilar-Moreno, players on the losing team were sometimes decapitated as a ritualistic sacrifice to the gods of the ballgame.

Ulama was also sometimes used to resolve territorial disputes between warring communities and as fertility rituals in hopes of increasing yearly harvests.

When the Spanish colonized the region, Catholic authorities outlawed Ulama because they viewed the game as a threat to Christianity.

The game mostly died out under that repression, but it survived in isolated rural communities. Hundreds of years later, Ulama was “rediscovered” and brought back into the limelight.

Today, revitalization efforts in Central America and the United States are attempting to bring the Mesoamerican Ballgame back to its former glory.

Athletes like Miguel Duran, National Male Team Captain of the international league AJUPEME, participate in competition and teach the public about Ulama hoping interest in the world’s oldest team sport will continue to grow.