In 1770, the Rubber tree was first observed in England by Joseph Priestley, he noticed that a piece of the material was extremely good for rubbing off pencil marks on paper, hence the name rubber.
Over 200 years later, nearly 20 million tons of rubber is produced worldwide, of which around 40% is natural. Because most rubber produced is synthetic (made from petroleum), the price of natural rubber varies based on the global price of crude oil.
Asia is now the main source of natural rubber, accounting for over 90% of the yearly output. The three largest producing countries, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia account for nearly 3/4ths of the harvest. The Rubber tree has been introduced from native species in South America, and grows well in Asia due to a lack of predation. Only wild growing trees are harvested in Belize successfully. Rubber plantations have not prospered in Central and South America due to a fungus that shows up on Rubber leaves.
The first recorded use of rubber was by the Olmecs, who centuries later passed on the knowledge of natural latex from the Hevea tree in 1600 BC to the ancient Maya. They boiled the harvested latex and combined the product with Morning Glory flower juice to make a ball for a sport.
In fact, the word “Olmec” also refers to the rubber balls used for their ancient ball game. Early modern explorers applied the name “Olmec” to the rediscovered ruins and art from this area before it was understood that these had been already abandoned more than a thousand years before the time of the people the Aztecs knew as the Olmec. Rubber ball games have great antiquity throughout the Americas, and the recent discovery of several rubber balls at the Olmec site of El Manati, near San Lorenzo, confirms that the game was played by the Olmec.
Today, many Mayan ball-courts can be viewed throughout Belize, including one at Lower Dover Field Station and Jungle Lodge. The most notable Maya ball game structure can be seen at the Maya ruins of Chichen Itza in Mexico. The Maya ball game has been examined extensively due to its apparent significance in Mayan culture and society, as well as the ritual sacrifice that was believed to take place coinciding with important dates in the Maya calendar. It is believed that the winners of the game were sacrificed!
The Rubber trees seen in this post can be viewed on the Medicinal Plant Trail at Lower Dover Jungle Lodge, where it will be possible to touch the natural latex rubber extract along with learning about many other Maya plants on the jungle hike.