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The Mystery of the Spheres

by Ray Vaughn

While leading a group of tourists through the National Museum (formerly a military installation), a local tour guide was heard to remark, "Costa Rica may not have an army, but we've got balls!"

He was referring, of course, to the enigmatic stone spheres that are prominently displayed in the museum's courtyard, as well as on lawns of the well-to-do around San José.

In contrast to many Latin American countries to the north or south, Costa Rica is not known for its pre-Columbian monuments, nor for the handicrafts produced by the indigenous descendents of the monument builders—for the simple reason that there are none to speak of. It is thought that no major archeological sites have been found here because this region never developed a sufficiently large population base as would have been necessary for constructing complexes in the order of Tikal, Copán, or Machu Pichu.

But as usual, what it may lack in size, Costa Rica makes up for in uniqueness.

The stone spheres found in the southern portion of the country, near the neck of the Río Terraba delta and also out on Isla del Caño, are structures unlike anything found elsewhere in the world. Although I have been told that in Switzerland and New Zealand some areas have spherical rocks somewhat larger than bowling balls, the largest of the Costa Rican spheres reaches three meters in diameter!

Speculation still exists about the formation of the spheres, as well as their usage by the native peoples that inhabited the abovementioned regions prior to the Spanish Conquest. As with other monoliths, such as the Egyptian obelisks or the blocks used in Stonehenge, what is known with certainty is the source of the rocks: the summit of the Talamanca mountain range.

Most archeologists favor the theory that the granitic rock was either chiseled or somehow worked by humans into the almost perfectly spherical forms. The way to prove this theory conclusively would be to find an unfinished sphere abandoned before completion (as is the case of a partially quarried Egyptian obelisk near Aswan). Unfortunately, none has been found to date.

Others believe natural forces may have caused the creation of the spheres. One of the two prevailing scenarios envisions huge chunks of molten rock ejected into the air millions of years ago when the Talamancas were an active volcanic chain. The ejecta then took on a spherical shape as it cooled in its fall to earth—much like a raindrop does.

The other theory takes into account the fact that during the past glacial epochs the upper reaches of the Talamancas were covered by ice masses. During the tens of thousands of years that the ice packs were present, they were not necessarily stagnant, and certainly moved around—crushing and pushing all that was underneath. Much the way we might work a piece of clay into a round ball by rolling it between our palms, the thick glacial ice may have fashioned the mysterious Costa Rican stone spheres.

For what it's worth, the aforementioned two places where much smaller spheres have been found are both areas that had glaciers during the ice ages as well.

Sadly, it will probably also only remain conjecture as to how the indigenous population made use of the spheres since apparently none have been left in situ. The area around Palmar Norte and Palmar Sur was opened up by the banana companies in the early 1930's and bulldozers shoved aside the big balls of rock that were in the way of their plantation layouts long before any archeologists ever reached the sites for a thorough inspection.

It would seem that the rather smaller spheres that were ferried out to Isla del Caño served as burial markers since the part of the island where they are found was used as a cemetery, although they may have had another purpose.

Despite our innate desire for knowledge and the unraveling of ancient riddles, in some respects, the mystery which surrounds the spheres only intensifies their wonder and attraction.

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