Prehistoric Stone Balls--a Mystery

Hundreds dot the Costa Rican jungle, as baffling as the monuments of Stonehenge.

stone balls dig
Excavations to ascertain age were made where river silt had buried balls near other artifacts.
stone balls dig
Dr. Lothrop removing pottery from the same cultural horizon as the stone balls. Investigations proved that they were made around the time of the Spanish Conquest or earlier. No written records of them exist.

Sam shook his head. “They must have had religious significance,” he said. “Their position bears out that theory.”

“Position?” I asked, completely confused. “How?”

“We’ve examined five large groups,” he explained, “of which at least three appear to be in their original positions. In each case, there was a base line of three, four, or five balls. All these groups had additional balls flanking the main line in such a fashion that three of them formed a triangle. By arranging them this way, various lines of sight were created, which may be of astronomical and ritualistic importance.”

“Why?” I asked.

Sam gave me a look of patient forbearance. “Because these lines of sight may very well have had some relationship to the sun, thus showing seasonal changes and helping the people to know the right time of year to plant their crops. In certain regions of the Maya area the Indians built structures for this purpose. Some of the Maya stelae, for example, are linked to astronomy. And here the same result was probably obtained by means of the stone balls.”

“But that’s a practical purpose,” I protested. “Not religious.”

“Astronomy and religion were closely associated with the practical pursuits of life such as agriculture,” Sam said.

I nodded and tried to look intelligent. It was obvious even to me that the stone balls must have a religious significance, if for no other reason than that it was the only explanation for them.

The third question—when the balls were made—was the only one for which we found a definite, if only partial, answer. Sam had decided to devote the rest of our stay in Palmar to digging for other evidence of the people who made the balls. This delighted me, because a dig is very much like a treasure hunt; and it delighted the workmen even more, who were certain we would find gold. It seems that three years previously a large piece of ground was being prepared for cultivation when a Costa Rican who was driving a bulldozer noticed a glitter in the earth. Jumping out of his machine, he clawed excitedly at the ground until he extracted a pot filled with gold ornaments. He promptly removed his helmet, stuffed it with treasure and disappeared, leaving the engine of the bulldozer running.

He sold six of the pieces in Palmar for about $240; the rest he took to San José where, according to local gossip, he disposed of them for $7,000, living for one year in the capital in great style on the proceeds. He was now back at his old job penniless after his big fling.

This story had fired the imaginations of all the other Company laborers, and the spot had been pulled to pieces, although nothing more had turned up. The Fruit Company had finally been forced to decree that digging without special permission was illegal.

We found no gold; but we did find two stone balls in one of the first pits we sank; They were not far below the surface; and we dug them out in order to see if there was anything underneath. The balls were resting on stone platforms; so we knew they were in their original positions.

When pottery turned up below the area where the platforms had been placed, Sam’s expression resembled that of a man who had found the equivalent of the Kohinoor diamond; The pottery was interesting, and I was pleased too, but Sam’s enthusiasm seemed excessive.

“It may give us an idea how old the balls are,” he explained.

Sam’s optimism was justified. Some of the pottery under one of the stone platforms turned out to be of classical Chiriqui type, best known in western Panama. We already knew from other evidence that this pottery was still being made at the time of the Spanish Conquest. Thus, by the same token, the stone ball found above it must also have been made at approximately the same period. The majority of the stone balls were probably considerably older, but it is safe to say that, although their date of origin is open to speculation, the cult of making stone balls was a late one, continuing into the sixteenth century.

Some day more information may be procured, but meanwhile the balls remain as enigmatical as the huge statues on Easter Island or the monuments of Stonehenge. In each of these places, enormous stones have been quarried, shaped, and moved without mechanical devices except ropes for hauling them and inclined ramps for lifting them.

Maybe our own civilization contains elements of material culture that will survive all knowledge of their purpose. So it goes: one era’s triumph is the next era’s riddle.

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