Found deep in the jungles of Costa Rica in the 1930’s were 300 nearly perfectly round stone balls. They varied in size from a few inches in diameter, to seven feet across and weighing 16 tons. Scientists aren’t sure who made them, how old they are or what purpose they might have had.

Most are made of the igneous rock gabbro, a type of basalt, though some are made of sedimentary rock, including limestone and sandstone.

There’s a misconception that the sphericity of these esferas (also known as “Las Bolas”) is nearly perfect, although considerable variation exists in their roundness. The daunting challenges of sculpting and transporting these giant orbs has led some to claim they were made by extraterrestrials or are connected with the lost continent of Atlantis.

While most legitimate archeologists have no doubt the stones are the work of an ancient indigenous people, skeptics argue that primitive people with basic, non-metallic tools could not possibly have made such perfectly round and smooth stones.

However, though many of the stones seem startling round, most of them are not as perfect in shape as they might appear to the casual observer. The best measurements were made by Lothrop in the 1950’s, but he was hampered in his observations by the size of the larger spheres and the difficulty of getting a tape measure around the spheres still half buried in the ground. Also not all the balls are perfectly smooth, and many show the evidence of the tools used to make them.

The Chorotega Indians are often cited as making the stone spheres, but they lived further north from where the balls were found. We don’t know exactly who created these globes of rock, but it seems likely it was the ancestors the people who lived in the region at the time of the Spanish conquest in the 16th century. They would have spoken the Chibchan languages (Unlike the Chorotega who spoke Oto-Manguean) and would have lived in dispersed settlements consisting of less than 2000 people. They would have made their living by hunting, fishing and farming. They probably raised such plants as beans, squash, papaya, pineapple, and avocado.

Another theory is that the balls were used as status symbols. According to John Hoopes, of the University of Kansas, who visited the stones in an effort to have them protected as a Unesco World Heritage Site, “the making and moving of the balls was probably an important social activity, perhaps more important than possession of the finished product…We believe that the balls may have sat in front of the houses of prominent people, perhaps as a display of power, of esoteric knowledge, or of control over labor.” There are records indicating that some spheres were found on the tops of mounds which might validate the idea that they were to be displayed as symbols of great status.

Although current law prohibits the moving of any sphere from its original location, a great many have been moved to another place since they were rediscovered in the 1930s. They became popular as lawn ornaments, they adorn the town parks of Palmar Sur and Sierpe, and several are housed in the National Museum in San José. There is one at the National Geographic Society Museum in Washington and another in a museum at Harvard.

But they left us a legacy that led UNESCO to declare “the Pre-Columbian Chiefdom Settlements with Stone Spheres of the Diquís” a World Heritage Site in 2014.

So these spheres are not just a national treasure, they are a world treasure.

And who knows? Maybe even interplanetary.

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