Michael J. Pieropan
ENVS 02: Human Nature, Technology and the Environment
Essay 2: Influence of Culture on Technology
February 28, 2006
The relationship between culture and technology is aptly characterized as a two-way street, with each exerting a substantial degree of influence on the other. A particular technological advance can have a considerable effect on the culture of those who utilize it. For example, consider the drastic implications that the advent of the television had on American culture. In a similar fashion, the culture of a population can exert a substantial degree of influence on the technologies that it develops. In all populations of the world, technological innovations are directly related to the needs, beliefs, and desires of its people. An excellent example of the effects that culture can have on technology is drawn from the classic Mesoamerican ballgame.
Known as pok-ta-pok by the Mayans, and later adopted by the Aztecs as tlachtli or ulamaliztli, the ballgame served as a definitive feature of Mesoamerican culture. With the earliest known rubber balls dating to 1600 B.C., the contest was played for many centuries in communities from the American southwest to northern South America (Hosler 2). Denoting its religious importance, the game is explicitly referenced in the Popol Vuh, the Mayan creation story, as a match between earthly heroes and evil forces of the underworld. In addition to religion and pure sporting competition, the game served various other ends, including the settlement of political conflicts and land disputes. Participants and onlookers commonly gambled on the matches, and it was not uncommon for losing players to be subjected to physical mutilation or even death.
The classic Mesoamerican ballgame was an overwhelmingly popular event. Nearly every town in the Mayan civilization had a local ball court, and massive crowds attended the matches. The “courts were always located in, and often helped to define, a ‘ceremonial centre,’ a concentration of public buildings, collectively constructed and often grandiose, that served as a local focus of religious, secular and commercial activity (Hammond 101).” The ballgame was, by all accounts, a cultural phenomenon.
The ballgame was played on a court “consisting of a long narrow alley between two parallel structures with sloping or vertical walls (Hammond Review 518).” Two teams competed against each other, with one to four players comprising a team. Players used their legs and torso (no hands allowed) to control a large, solid rubber ball, collectively attempting to keep the ball from touching the ground. Points were awarded when players successfully aimed the ball through various markers on the walls of the court (typically stone rings) or shot it into the goal at the ends of the court.
While the exact rules of the game varied over time and locale, the rubber ball remained a staple piece of equipment. Typically measuring about eight inches in diameter, the heavy ball was made of solid rubber. The ball was incredibly elastic, capable of bouncing several feet into the air. While most cultures of the modern world are familiar with bouncy rubber balls, such objects do not occur naturally. Rather, ancient Mesoamerican peoples were processing and purifying rubber to enhance its strength and elasticity – a truly remarkable technological accomplishment.
Rubber is obtained through the sap of rubber trees. Given their abundance in Central America, it is logical to assume that the Mayans obtained their sappy latex from the Castilla elastica tree. When latex dries, it forms a rubber material that is sticky and brittle, with minimal elasticity. In 1839, Charles Goodyear established the revolutionary vulcanization process, which created a rubber that was strong and elastic by combining latex with sulfur, and heating the compound. Astonishingly, the peoples of Mesoamerica were utilizing a very similar technology as early as 1600 B.C.
Ancient Mesoamericans discovered that mixing the latex from the C. elastica tree with the juice from Lpomoea alba, a species of morning glory vine, will drastically enhance the rubber’s mechanical performance. A piece of the vine, which was abundant in the tropical forests, was stripped of its leaves and wrapped into a coil. Juice was extracted by crushing the coiled vine against a rock. The juice was then added to the raw latex and stirred. After a few minutes, the liquid latex solidified into a solid mass. Displaying an admirable level of technological advancement, ancient Mesoamerican peoples then heated the processed rubber to a malleable state, so that it could be formed into the desired shape and size. The end result, a processed rubber ball, was incredibly strong and bouncy.
Unprocessed latex has various carbon-containing components that serve as plasticizers, disrupting and inhibiting interactions between polymer chains. The introduction of juice from the morning glory vine “solubilizes these plasticizing agents, thus allowing chain entanglement and interchain interactions, which give rise to the rubbery behavior of the processed rubber (Hosler 4).” The liquid extract from Lpomoea alba purifies the latex, effectively altering its mechanical properties by increasing its strength and elasticity.
While the ancient Mesoamerican peoples that enacted this process obviously had no conception of the chemical workings that underlie this transformation, they were advanced enough to develop and perfect this process. The understanding of heat and its ability to render a stiff rubber mass into a malleable formation shows tremendous intellectual progression. MIT archaeologist Dorothy Hosler is investigating the possibility that Mesoamericans could have even created balls with specific elasticities by controlling the amount of vine juice added (Teresi 339). Clearly, the social and political importance of the ballgame was the predominant factor that led to these technological advancements in rubber processing. The Mesoamerican ballgame is an ideal example of the dramatic influence that culture can have on technology in a population of peoples.
The advancements in rubber processing driven by the cultural demand for rubber balls were adopted for a wide range of other instruments. The semi-viscous, malleable rubber was fashioned into human figurines, which were presumably used as dolls and toys. Mesoamericans crafted sturdy and flexible rubber bands that functioned to attach ax heads to wooden handles. Rubber was also used as a medicine and a lip balm. In its liquid form, rubber was painted with and spattered on paper to serve a ritual purpose (Hosler 1).
The cultural importance of the ballgame led to technological innovations in the development of sophisticated equipment. Various artifacts from the Late Classic Maya period, including a famous polychrome Lubaantún vase and sculptured ball court markers, display images of ballgame players dressed in their equipment. The equipment consisted primarily of a broad ‘belt,’ which was hardly a belt at all, as it actually was a thick ribbed object, stuffed with deer skin, that covered the entire chest. It is presumed that multiple skins were often sewn together to provide the stuffing for one of these sturdy belts. In addition to the belt, ballgame equipment included crested caps, sewn knee pads, and elbow-binds (Hammond 103). Other artifacts portray individuals wearing stuffed helmets, sewn together in much the same way as the belt. While an investigation into the wartime garbs of the Mesoamerican peoples is beyond the scope of this paper, it would be logical to assume that the technologies developed for the creation of ballgame protection were advantageously adopted to propel wartime innovation.
The culture of Mesoamerican peoples, particularly the importance of the classical ballgame, pok-ta-pok to the Maya and tlachtli to the Aztec, had tremendous influence on the technological advancements of their collective civilization. Demand for bouncy rubber balls for sport led to the development of various rubber processing techniques. By mixing juice from the morning glory vine with raw latex, ancient Mesoamericans were able to enhance the strength and elasticity of the rubber. This procedure closely resembles the vulcanization process, which wasn’t discovered by modern societies until 1839. Processed rubber created a considerable amount of societal benefit, as it was adopted for uses ranging from personal hygiene to warfare innovation. One can indisputably attribute the technological spur in rubber processing to the cultural demands imposed by the sport’s popularity. The Mesoamerican ballgame provides a superb example of the drastic influence that culture can have on technology.
Hammond, Norman. “A Classic Maya ball-game vase.” Problems in Economic and Social Archaeology. London: Duckworth, 1976.
Hammond, Norman. “The Mesoamerican Ballgame.” Literature Review. Journal of Field Archaeology, Vol. 19, No. 4. Winter 1992. pgs 518-521.
Hosler, Dorothy, Sandra L. Burkett and Michael J. Tarkanian. “Prehistoric Polymers: Rubber Processing in Ancient Mesoamerica.” Science Magazine. Vol. 284, No. 5422. June 18, 1999. pgs 1988-1991.
Teresi, Dick. "Lost Discoveries: The ancient roots of modern science." Simon and Schuster, 2002. ISBN 0-684-83718-8. pp. 325-367.
van Bussel, G.W., P.L.F. van Dongen, and T.J.J. Leyenaar, eds. The Mesoamerican Ballgame. Leiden: Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde, 1991.
Return to ENVS2 homepage
Send message to Swarthmore College Environmental Studies
last updated 3/2/06webmaster