Costa Rica's mysterious stone spheres

Almost perfectly round stone spheres, such as this one at a school in Palmar Norte, dot the Southern Zone of Costa Rica.</p>

Almost perfectly round stone spheres, such as this one at a school in Palmar Norte, dot the Southern Zone of Costa Rica.

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.

In the late 1930s, a subsidiary of the notorious United Fruit Company began clearing the forest to plant banana trees. Workers stumbled over the carved stones and began carrying them out by trucks and trains. The balls ended up resting in public spaces like city parks and church grounds, or were bought up for private collections.

By 1980, the government had begun to take conservation efforts seriously and in 1982 the balls were put under state ownership. In the last decade, they have gradually been returned to their original habitat in the south.

But development projects are threatening conservation efforts. There is talk of building a new airport on the plains of Palmar Sur, an important archeological region. Energy officials are also planning a major hydropower plant in Diquis, another sphere haven. Both of these projects could require moving the spheres, according to the National Museum, which has been a strong advocate for courting the UNESCO heritage organization.

The country already boasts three world heritage sites: Isla de Coco, an uninhabited paradise island off the Pacific shore; the Talamanca Range-La Amistad Reserves/La Amistad National Park, a rain forest and indigenous territory at the Caribbean border with Panama; and the Guanacaste Conservation Area, a dry forest lush with biodiversity in the northwestern part of the country.

The UNESCO representatives were impressed by what they saw. "The important thing is these objects have not been de-contextualized," said Freddy Montero, cultural program officer for UNESCO's San Jose office, noting that the experts had an opportunity to see spheres in situ. At one of the sites, two spheres sit almost like statues at the entryway of an important tribal home, leading archeologists to believe the balls were used as status symbols.

But acquiring a fourth world heritage badge won't be a shoo-in. The visit, Montero said, is a starting point for an important process that should encourage work to research and preserve the sites. Montero said it is important to incorporate local communities, including members of the Boruca indigenous group, to promote sustainable development and conservation.

The U.N. agency has been known to set a timetable of up to 10 years to work with governments toward a permanent site listing, Montero said. UNESCO prizes research, preservation and uniqueness and the experts currently are drawing up a list of recommendations that should help Costa Rica's candidacy. Even if this country fails to make the final cut, the process will still have helped reclaim the country's indigenous identity, Corrales said.

"The stone spheres and other structures within the sites constitute an exceptional testimony to disappeared societies," Corrales said. "People have begun to feel proud of this and identify with it as an ancestral legacy."