The spheres or stone balls first
came to light during the early 1940s, discovered during excavations in the
Diquis Delta region by the United Fruit Company. Workers on these
plantations found a large number of these stone spheres, some totally exposed,
and other buried. Many were severely damaged when they were found, as in
many cases it was earth moving equipment that ran into them while clearing
forest for banana planting.
As early as 1948, the stone spheres were deteriorating due to exposure to
alternate heat and cold (93 to 97 degrees F in the shade in the winter, much
hotter in the sun). The balls were subjected to the sun's heat, and rain, as well as
to fire when the United Fruit Company cleared the land in the 1940s. The stone
spheres received alternate light and shade under the cultivated banana trees
and they were drenched weekly by irrigation when it didn't rain. Evidence of
battering and cracking was seen. Falling giant tropical trees may have
shattered some balls as well.
Looting was the major problem.
To such an extent that as many as 95% were taken. Many of the smaller
and medium size balls were moved to adorn parks and gardens. To this day, you
can see them throughout Costa Rica in older homes, in parks, and adorning
Another threat was the mistaken
belief that they contained treasure. Many were blasted, or split,
owing to the native belief that they somehow contained gold. In part,
this was because some claimed gold was found near the balls.
first major archeological data was published by Dr. Doris Z. Stone in 1943,
then later by S.K. Lothrup in 1963.
George P. Cittenden, who purchased the relevant land
for the United Fruit Company in the 1930s, was first to note the presence of
mounds and stone spheres. Dr. Doris Z. Stone visited the area in 1941 and
1943, publishing her findings in 1943. S.K. Lothrup's work stemmed from
Dr. Stone (1943), Verneau and Rivet (1912-1922) and others discussed the
distribution of stone balls, large and small, throughout the New World. They
concluded that the spheres served different functions in different areas.
Large examples outside the delta area are rare. Isolated specimens up to 3
feet in diameter are known from Olmec sites in Vera Cruz Mexico. They have
been reported at Zaculeu in the Guatemalan Highlands (largest 15 1/2 inches in
diameter), occurring in the first level of occupation in what is regarded as
Early Classic Maya.
Dr. Stone published plans of 5 sites in the Diquis Delta containing 44
stone spheres. She also reported other balls north of the Sierra Bruquena
near the town of Uvita and in the flood plain of the Esquinas River. She also saw
two specimens at Cavagra.
In Costa Rica, Lothrup reported stone balls in the Diquis Delta,
Camaronal Island where they were on hilltops, on the hills north of the Diquis
and high up in the Cordillera Bruquena that reaches about 1,000 meters in
height. The most easterly group was near Piedras Blancas.
Stone spheres (balls to Lothrup) range in diameter from a few
inches to as much as 8 feet with weights ranging from only a few pounds to 16+ tons
(15,000kg). They are made of the local igneous rock (density about 3.0) with a few
exceptions. Most were of a granite. They numbered in the many hundreds if not
thousands. No granite is found near where the balls were found except for
small water borne stones. The granite must have been transported from the
mountains. The weight of the stone blocks necessary to form spheres and the
work itself reveal that the spheres are clearly the work of more than one person. The
time to make the spheres with primitive tools was thought to be enormous, even with large
gangs working on one example. However, as has been proven in
recent years, skilled stone masons could have created spheres with a meter
diameter in relatively short periods of time, with just 2 individuals.
Smaller balls 1ft-2ft could have easily been created by one individual in less
than a week.
Small (10 and 24 inches) stone balls were found individually in burial
mounds as well. In at least 2 instances, balls were placed in graves
indicating individual ownership. Thus these balls represented a form of
wealth. Though this may not have been the view during the period when
they were being created, but may represent the perception of later generations
that looted spheres had some value.
Sometimes balls occurred singly, other times in groups. The largest group
known to Lothrup contained at least 45 balls. Depressions in which balls
previously stood could still be detected then. Some spheres were buried.
Per John W. Hoopes, At the time of a major study undertaken in the 1950s,
fifty balls were recorded as being in situ. Today, only a handful are
known to be in their original locations.
varied, and the surfaces varied in smoothness. Because the all context
has been lost, it is all but impossible to determine over how long a period of
time, these balls were being created. It is possible that the rougher
worked balls were either created before or after those of finer detail.
As is the case elsewhere, an individual group or guild may have perfected the
craft, only to be copied later on by those without the skills and knowledge
needed for the same level of perfection.
Per Lothrup, age of the balls is estimated according to associated
pottery types. Evidence suggests the spheres represent a span of many
centuries. Some are of relatively great age, others the handiwork of the 16th
Century inhabitants. This suggests a stable population and cultural continuity
over a long period of time.
Per local Diquis legend, the spheres represent the sun but this is not believed
because disks universally represent the sun in the New World. The spheres were
highly valued and probably had a religious or magical significance. Probably
successive generations labored to enlarge the number of balls in individual
The large groups may have ritual significance as they were set in formal
alignments. The lines may mark astronomical sight lines. Although,
this website author believes they had another function.
The stone balls and mounds were too heavy to move for the crews that
cleared the ground for banana farming in the early 1940s. Lothrup's group
found evidence that some stone spheres had been placed on top of mounds as
well as groups of spheres where no trace of mounds existed at the time.
Per Lothrup, the natives of the Diquis Delta were capable stone cutters
because of their great stone balls and numerous statues, but they did not
apply stone cutting skills to construction of dwellings. Per John W.
Hoopes, The peoples who lived in the area where the balls are found were
Chibchan speakers. The balls have been found in association with
architectural remains, such as stone walls and pavements made of river
cobbles, and both whole and broken pottery vessels that are consistent with
finds at other sites associated with the Aguas Buenas and Chiriquí cultures.
These are believed to represent native peoples ancestral to historical
Chibchan-speaking group of southern Costa Rica.
believers have implied that the balls may date as early as 12,000 years ago.
Per John W. Hoopes, there is no evidence to support this claim. Since the
balls cannot be dated directly by methods such as radiocarbon dating, which
can be applied directly only to organic materials, the best way to date them
is by stratigraphic context and associated artifacts. Lothrop excavated one
stone ball that was located in a soil layer separated from an underlying,
sherd-bearing deposit that contained pottery typical of the Aguas Buenas
culture (200 BC - AD 600). In the soil immediately beneath this ball he found
the broken head of a painted human figurine of the Buenos Aires Polychrome
type, dated to AD 1000-1500 (examples have reportely been found associated
with iron tools). This suggests the ball was made sometime between AD 600 and
Please refer to: Lothrup, S. K , Archeology
of The Diquis Delta, Costa Rica, Papers of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology
and Ethnology, Harvard, University, Vol. L1, 1963.
Dr. John W. Hoopes website for additional information.
A dialog on ancient stone
Date: Thu, 15 Feb 1996
From Archaeology List, February, 1996
Reprinted for further clarification.
Sender: Archaeology List <ARCH-L@TAMVM1.TAMU.EDU>
From: JOHN HOOPES <hoopes@FALCON.CC.UKANS.EDU>
Subject: Re: Costa Rica spheres
Sadly, these objects are no
longer unearthed "on a regular basis". Most of the sites where they were found
have been completely wiped out as a result of industrial agriculture. However,
new technologies like ground-penetrating radar may in the future reveal more
under layers of fine alluvium.
For a general discussion of
Costa Rican archaeology that includes description and interpretation of the
stone balls, see:
- Stone, Doris Z.
- 1977 Precolumbian Man
Finds Costa Rica. Peabody Museum Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The most complete discussion of
the stone balls in print remains:
- Lothrop, Samuel K.
- 1963 Archaeology of
the Diquis Delta, Costa Rica. Papers of the Peabody Museum of
Archaeology and Ethnology, Vol. 51. Harvard University, Cambridge.
This monograph is based on
fieldwork undertaken in the late 1950s
(actually 1940's), at which time there were still a
reasonably large number of spheres still in situ. Lothrop estimated that there
were at least 300 of these known, ranging in size from a few centimeters to
over two meters in diameter. Unfortunately, since the time of his research,
virtually all of the stone balls (I'm told that mathematicians define
"spheres" as hollow forms...) have been removed from their precolumbian
contexts. It is likely that these balls were in use over a period of over a
thousand years (between about AD 200 and 1500), and I like to think of them as
artifacts that are still in use. In Costa Rica, these monuments are ubiquitous
"status" markers in the gardens of the homes of the elite. They also adorn
official buildings such as the Asamblea Legislativa, hospitals, and schools.
At present, only six of these
objects are known to be in precolumbian contexts. Most are located at a site
called Finca 6 (Farm 6) near the town of Palmar Sur in southern Costa Rica. A
recent monograph on this site and a comprehensive catalog of Costa Rican stone
balls is in the final stages of its completion by Ifigenia Quintanilla, an
archaeologist at the National Museum of Costa Rica.
After Lothrop, the next most
useful references are (one old and one new):
- Stone, Doris Z.
- 1943 A Preliminary
Investigation of the Flood Plain of the Rio Grande de Terraba, Costa Rica.
American Antiquity 9(1):74-88.
- Baudez, Claude F.,
Nathalie Borgnino, Sophie Laligant & Valerie Lauthelin
- 1993 Investigaciones
Arqueologicas en el Delta del Diquis. Centro de Estudios Mexicanos y
Centroamericanos, Mexico, D.F.
The latter is a small book that
is a bit difficult to obtain, but it is an excellent report on stratigraphic
excavations in the area where the balls are found. It presents a new ceramic
sequence with radiocarbon dates and includes a comprehensive summary of what
is known about the prehistory of the Diquis Delta. The authors located a few
of the balls in areas where drainage ditches for banana irrigation were being
dug. A summary of the results in English (and another chapter by me that
describes the culture responsible for the initial manufacture of the balls)
will appear in:
- Lange, Frederick W. (ed.)
- 1996 Paths Through
Central American Prehistory: Essays in Honor of Wolfgang Haberland.
University of Colorado Press, Boulder. (Still in press).
The balls are found primarily
in the Diquis Delta. However, examples have also been found on the Isla del
Caño, some 30 km offshore. In 1990 and 1992, I recorded the southernmost
examples of these monuments at sites near Golfito, on the Golfo Dulce of
southern Costa Rica. Seven of these, all moved short distances from their
precolumbian contexts, were found. The largest was about 120 cm in diameter.
The vast majority the balls are
made of a granodiorite that outcrops in the lower Terraba River. Quintanilla
has located the raw material source and some boulders that may be unfinished
balls. In her excavations, she also found flakes from the balls that suggested
a method of manufacture. The stone from which they are made, when heated and
then rapidly cooled (as with fire and cold water), exfoliates in thin,
onion-like layers. Done repeatedly, this technique could have been used to
shape boulders into their near-perfect sphericity. After this, they were
polished to a high luster with ground stone tools.
The use of the balls remains
highly speculative. A graduate student of mine, Enrico Dal Lago, wrote an M.A.
thesis comparing the cultural context of the Costa Rican balls to other
societies that shaped and moved large stones (the Olmec, Neolithic Europe,
Polynesia, etc.) He also reviewed the limited but intriguing evidence, first
explored by Lothrop, that the balls were placed in astronomically significant
I suspect the balls had
multiple purposes, which changed over time. They are likely to have served as
status markers in front of communal or private houses or in town plazas. Their
manufacture may have been ritualized, and perhaps as important as the final
product. (Helaine Silverman's hypotheses regarding the Nazca lines provide
intriguing comparative models). For me, the spherical shape probably evolved
in response to the need to move these objects. After all, spheres roll in all
directions with minimum resistance. We find spheres weighing several tons atop
100 m high hills, so transport was an important consideration.
Spheres have been found at
other sites in Central America, including Tonina in the Maya lowlands, but
nowhere with the quantity or quality with which they are found in southern
I am currently at work on a
book in which I discuss these objects in detail. I'd appreciate any
suggestions about their interpretation or additional questions.
Date: Thu, 15 Feb 1996
Dept. of Anthropology
University of Kansas
Sender: Archaeology List <ARCH-L@TAMVM1.TAMU.EDU>
From: JOHN HOOPES <hoopes@FALCON.CC.UKANS.EDU>
Subject: Re: Costa Rica spheres
A couple of corrections to my
The title of Stone's book is
"Precolumbian Man in Costa Rica".
S.K. Lothrop's fieldwork was
conducted in the late 1940s, not 1950s.
Speculation On The Use Of Stone Balls In Pre-Columbian Costa Rica
While there is little context
from which to work, there remains the stone balls themselves. Having
explored this subject for more than 30 years, I have come to several possible
explanations for their existence. These are shared for the sake of
expanding the dialog, and are not presented as scientific fact, though are
supported by observation, and analysis.
- Land marks - highway
In cultures throughout the Americas, stone statues were used as route
markers and indicators of territory.
Interestingly, a sphere has unique qualities that make it well suited to
rain forest use. It resists soil deposition, and it can not be laid
down or fall over. It can be moved, but it always remains upright.
Also a sphere is an unusual shape in a forest, and lends itself to easy
identification - particularly if they were painted/coated with lime - they
would be very strikingly visible.
Thus smaller balls, which would have been needed in quantity, could easily
have formed a network of markers through dense forest.
- Light House
Another interesting aspect of some balls, was that a small number had
residual lime coatings. The author examined 3 medium sized balls in
private hands in 1976 that had recently been looted. Two of the three
still had significant line coatings (powered and "painted" onto the balls).
The looter informed the author that they had not been cleaned or otherwise
treated, and that this was how they were found on his finca (farm) a couple
of months before. These spheres were each measure and found to be: .72
meters in diameter, .69 meters diameter, and .71 meters diameter. All
but one was near perfect (in this case near perfect being defined as +/- 3cm
A series of experiments were undertake to determine the potential value of a
white sphere as a stationary beacon in varying contexts:
- An approximately 2
meter (6.5ft) diameter large weather balloon was used in one, which was
white painted and placed atop a hill with one km line of sight visibility.
The painted sphere was clearly visible under overcast skies, and stood out
like a light house under the sun!
- A large (20 inch
diameter) beach ball was used, and painted white. It was taken into
dense forest (in the Orosi Valley - though this was for convenience sake).
Straight line visibility was limited to no more that 20 meters (65 ft).
Placed atop a small platform of stones, the white sphere was distinctly
visible in the dim light on the forest floor.
The result of the above was
that stone balls could easily have proven useful as markers and signal
beacons. This does not prove they were used that way, only that their
effectiveness was evident.
- Balls As Bearings
One recent correspondent suggested that the balls might have been used as
bearings or wheels of some kind.
It is possible to use a sphere contained in a socket as a load bearing
motive device - in short a wheel (just look at the cars in the recent movie
"I Robot"). HOWEVER, using a sphere for that purpose brings some
serious engineering requirements: lubricant, and polish. The
Costa Rican sphere were not sufficiently polished to realistically permit
this. The socket would have to be constructed of either stone or wood,
and thus the ball would have ground down the inner surface of the socket to
such an extent to be unusable very quickly.
However, it does point out another possible use for smaller balls: as
grinding stones for use on metates. But the balls would have to be
small enough to be managed. This is plausible, though a ball is not
the most obvious choice for this purpose.
- Balls As Weapons
There is little doubt that the cultures of the region engaged in warfare.
And frankly, it is likely our own bias to believe that ONLY modern cultures
could use spheres as weapons. Spheres were used in catapults going
back thousands of years. The problem is the lack of written and clear
Building a catapult is not extreme engineering. Though using them with
effectiveness is a skill. But another way of using a sphere as a
weapon is with a sling.
During that same summer of 1976, and repeated later, the author and
associated, attempted to work out how a ball could be used as a weapon.
The results proved interesting and possible:
- Ball in a basket:
weave a basket wound the ball, and attach a liana/vine. The ball
could not be more than about 25kg. Pick up the ball with the vine,
extend the vine out a foot or two. Start to spin, extend the vine to
give greater centripetal force and momentum to the ball. When
you have achieved enough momentum, release the vine - you have a guided
missile! We believe that larger balls could have been used, possibly
with tandem individuals holding the vine - but there is a point at which
the woven basket and the vive fail.
- Bowling: Another
useful tactic is to use the balls as gravity weapons, by simply rolling
them down hill. It is possible to construct simple guiding devices
to increase effectiveness. But the simple approach does work
especially on a concentrated attacking force.
- Astronomical Devices
Ironically, while the sphere seems a natural choice in astronomical
observations, it is probably also the least likely use of these balls.
It is important to remember where these balls were made and deployed.
This is a region of dense tropical rain forests. Placing a large
number of spheres in an astrological alignment, presumes that you can view
this alignment. In most cases, that would be prohibitive, unless there
were large tracks of cleared lands in this region 1,000 years ago. It
is not impossible, just very improbable.
While the above is
speculation, it is based upon observation, experimentation, and rational
understanding of the cultures of the region. However, since there is
such a lack of context, you are allowed to speculate yourself!
Do you have a better idea?
Share it with us at:
Dr. Tim McGuinness