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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.

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."