Archaeologists working in the Chiapas region of Mexico's Pacific coast - including a scholar from Brigham Young University - have uncovered the oldest known ball court.

The earthen ball court discovered at Paso de la Ameda dates back to around 1400 B.C., "which is at least five centuries older than any previously excavated ball court in Mesoamerica," says an article in the April issue of Nature magazine. The authors are professors John E. Clark of BYU and Warren D. Hill and Michael Blake of the University of British Columbia.Since ancient societies in the Old World aren't known to have played ball games, that makes it the oldest, period.

Ball courts were in use throughout Mexico until the Spanish conquest in the early 16th century. At least by that time, and perhaps all along, they were often used in a blood sport.

The Conquistadors wrote that the game was called "tlachtli." Running through a 240-foot central alley, teams would try to score by getting a latex ball through a stone hoop. They had to maneuver the solid rubber ball by bouncing it off thighs, hips and chests - no hands, no feet.

Sometimes the game involved no head too: that is, accounts talk of the decapitation of the captains of losing teams.

That may not have been exactly the way the game was played 3,000 years earlier.

"The later Mesoamerican ball games had a lot of ritual implications," Clark told the Deseret News. But he does not know "whether they had all those meanings in it when it first began."

Over the millennia, some cultural institutions like ball games could take on new meanings and lose others. "They're always changing," he said. Just over the last 50 years, for example, basketball has undergone many changes.

What's surprising is that the design of the Mesoamerican ball court remained about the same through the millennia. The Mokaya people in Chiapas were village-dwelling folks who lived 200 years before the first cities in the region. They are thought to be the ancestors of the later Olmecs and Maya.

At the time of the conquest, the Aztecs and their neighbors often lived in large, complex masonry cities.

What identified the new find as an ancient ball court "is that it's structurally so similar to those we know from later times," Clark said.

The playing area is flat and about 240 feet long, an alley formed between a pair of elevated structures like bleachers.

It was uncovered when diggers tackled the largest of several ancient mounds.

Instead of the remains of huts that they expected, they unearthed the outlines of the ball court, showing up in hard-packed dirt. It was an unexpected discovery because it was so big and it was so much earlier than other known examples.

Other villages in the region probably competed against the local team. Most likely, nearby towns had ball courts to entertain visitors too.

"I think there are others. They just have never been found," he said.

Its importance suggests that long ago, the games might have been crucial to the political, religious and social life of the village.

Adjacent to the court were the ruins of a large dwelling that probably housed one of Mesoamerica's first chiefs. He would have been a community leader who managed the ball court, Clark believes.

The court and the chief's home obviously delight Clark, because the field of research that draws him to southern Mexico is the study of the transition from simple villages to cities. He has been there seven times in 1998 alone, counting the trip scheduled for this week.

Apparently, a tradition of having chieftains grew up in a society that started out egalitarian.

"It occurred by some people getting an initial advantage and being able to hold onto it," he said. They passed the advantage to their children, who held it and passed it to their own offspring.

As the decades passed, a ruling class developed.

Clark thinks the ball court might have been part of the process. If one family controlled access to it, "that could have helped maintain their initial advantage."