What’s gray, round, and keeps popping up all over?
Stone spheres, believed to be handcrafted by the Costa Ricans’ pre-Columbian ancestors.
Archaeologists have unearthed another mysterious sphere in an excavation in Palmar Sur, near the southern Pacific coast, the NationalMuseum announced. It is roughly the same size as the one discovered nearby in 1993: 1.1 meters in diameter.
Only this ball has a slight “defect” on part of its surface, said lead archaeologist Adrián Badilla.
Regarded as indigenous treasures, hundreds of perfectly round monoliths have been spotted in different parts of the country since the 1940s.
Many are no larger than a bowling ball. Some are larger than life, like 15-ton boulders. They’re usually made of granodiorite, a hard, igneous stone similar to granite. Archaeologists believe native inhabitants chiseled, pecked and ground granodiorite boulders using rocks of the same material.
One of the most significant aspects of this recent finding, say archaeologists, is that it joins the handful of spheres to have ever been seen in their original spots. Finding them in situ helps scientists learn about their social and historical context.
Digging and Debunking
The recent sphere appeared 1.5 meters underground at the Finca 6 site at the foot of an entrance ramp to what archaeologists believe was a pre-Columbian Chiriquí home, National Museum Director Francisco Corrales told The Tico Times.
The exact use and origin of the spheres remains a mystery; attempts to explain it range from cosmic to comic. These have included Erich von Däniken’s 1971 world famous bestseller “Chariots of the Gods,” in which the Swiss author examined the role of the balls in the Americas’ supposed close encounter with alien-kind.
But for respected archaeologist Corrales, who last week visited the dig his museum sponsors, this latest finding reinforces a more anthropological theory.
“The finding leads us to believe that these spheres were symbols of social prestige and hierarchical positions” during the Chiriquí period from 800 to 1500 AD, he said. The Chiriquí were ancestors of the Brunca, one of Costa Rica’s eight indigenous groups.
“This is important because it reinforces the fact that they (the spheres) were created by indigenous people who had a complex society, capable of constructing such things. (The Chiriquí) were experts with stone,” he said.
Corrales has had a hunch about the importance of the area, in the Diquis delta, especially since archaeologist Ifigenia Quintanilla began fieldwork there in 1991.
He continues drumming up support for the coveted classification of the area as a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
Quintanilla excavated several spheres in situ, including the 1993 “sister” of the latest discovery. Scientists regard her work documenting the manufacturing process and cultural significance of the balls, compiled in Spanish and English with dramatic night-time photographs of the sculptures in her new book “The Pre-Columbian Stone Spheres of Costa Rica,” as one of the most complete to date.
On hearing the news of Badilla’s finding, Quintanilla was delighted. “After more than 50 years of destruction by people mining for gold and exploiting the land for bananas, it is amazing that it’s still possible to find these spheres in their original place,” said Quintanilla.
That more than 90% of the spheres were spotted away from their homes, she added, is all the more remarkable.