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Costa Rica's mysterious stone spheres

Alien communication? Galactic map? Costa Ricans are proud of their stone spheres — even if they don't know why they exist.

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — A solitary, round sculpture that could pass as a simple work of modern art lends a sense of calm to this otherwise gritty, architecturally challenged capital city.

But the stone ball is actually a relic of pre-Columbian times with origins that remain a mystery. Since it and 300 others were uncovered in the country's southern Pacific region, theories to explain their purpose have run the gamut: Were they deposited to communicate with aliens? Does their placement outline some sort of galactic map? Do they hail from the descendants of Atlantis?

The spheres range from the size of a bowling ball to 15-ton boulders. Their precision is stunning: they appear to be machine-cut but are actually the work of meticulous indigenous craftsmen, who chiseled, pecked and ground granodiorite — a hard igneous stone similar to granite — using rocks of the same material to create the near perfect spheres.

Now, 70 years after the stones were discovered near the Panama border, Costa Rica is hoping the area will be named a UNESCO World Heritage site, giving the country its fourth attraction on the coveted list. Earlier this month, an international team of experts descended on the sites to consider whether they warrant inclusion on a list that includes Egypt's pyramids and the Taj Mahal.

Costa Rican archeologist Francisco Corrales, who has been researching and digging around sphere sites for 25 years, says the stone balls provide a window into the country's largely overlooked indigenous ancestry.

"In Costa Rica there has been a myth of whiteness," Corrales said, stressing that Costa Ricans, unlike their neighbors throughout Central America, barely identify with their indigenous heritage. He said the spheres have given them a tangible connection to their forefathers. "People believe that the indigenous peoples here did not achieve the development of the rest of Mesoamerica, the Mayans and so forth. But the stone spheres have begun to reverse this opinion."

Corrales believes they were created between A.D. 400 and 1500 by the same master craftsmen who made the miniature gold figurines of butterflies, frogs and lizards that are displayed in the national museums of San Jose. Like many indigenous peoples across the Americas, these artisans died out following the arrival of the Spanish in the late 15th and early 16th centuries.

The reigning theory is these monoliths were used to denote social status, and scientists have also looked for clues regarding a possible connection with the sun, the stars and the heavens. But so far studies into a celestial link have been inconclusive. Corrales rejects outright another popular myth that the balls hailed from Atlantis, calling it pure "fantasy" and claiming it has racist undertones for doubting the creative capabilities of indigenous Costa Ricans.