When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in Mesoamerica in the 16th century, they found a very advanced civilization that had many things that left the Spaniards astonished, among them there was something they had never seen before: bouncing rubber balls. The elastic material with which they were made simply did not exist in the Old World, and the Spanish Conquistadors could not find a word to describe what they were seeing.
The discovery of the vulcanization process –vulcanized rubber– by Charles Goodyear is undoubtedly listed as one of the greatest achievements in modern times, revolutionizing many things, among them tires used in transportation. However, before Goodyear’s came up with his techniques, 3000 years ago, the ancient Maya created elastic and products made of rubber, such as balls, human figurines, and bindings for various utilities.
In the ancient Maya society, both the rubber tree and the morning glory were considered as extremely important plants –the plants were used as a hallucinogen as well as healing herbs, and the two are usually found growing close to one another.
In a study published by scientists from MIT in 2010, researchers concluded that ancient Mesoamerican civilizations were the first who studied polymers. By varying the amount of material mixed with raw rubber, they were able to modify their properties adjusting the material to whatever use they intended it for, dominating rubber artifacts thousands of years ago before the ‘modern world’ had any clues about it.
The ancient Maya revolutionized many techniques and even learned to mix the rubber with other materials. While researching the texts written by Spanish explorers, scientists discovered that the ancient Maya created rubber balls by mixing the latex with a vine called morning glory, the juice is rich in sulfur amino acids capable of vulcanizing rubber.
The MIT study was based on research by Professor Dorothy Hosler and technical instructor Michael Tarkanian of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at MIT.
In 1999, the two scientists reported that by mixing equal parts of latex from the rubber tree found in Panama with juice from morning glory, and by heating the mixture, they created bouncing balls. In addition, while exploring the properties of the mixture, they realized that by varying the proportions of these two elements, products were obtained with very different properties.
For example, three parts of latex and one part of morning glory results in a durable and strong material ideal for sandals. If morning glory was not added to the mixture, a good adhesive was obtained. As we see, the result was similar to that obtained by Charles Goodyear in 1839, when he discovered by chance the vulcanization process, transforming the automotive industry by creating one of the most popular brands of tires.
As you can see, the Ancient Maya were extremely advanced not only in different sciences but also in one of the earliest types of ‘industrial’ processes, which took place in the ‘New World’ thousands of years before it was ‘reinvented’ in the Old World.