Costa Rica’s Stone Spheres

By Aida Gabriela Araya   Photo by Andres Madrigal


Location, materials and tools used, symbolism and use, Finca 6

In Costa Rica’s southern region, especially around the Diquís Delta, in Osa, many nearly perfectly shaped stone spheres have been discovered. Dating from before the arrival of Columbus and discovered around 80 years ago, these spheres have long been an enigma for archeologists, anthropologists, historians and researchers.

Some 45 sites with spheres have been discovered throughout Costa Rica, but the Diquís region is the most interesting, not only because of the large amount of spheres found (over 200), but also because of their huge size and the advanced shaping techniques used.

Certain aspects add to their mystery: There is very little information from the pre-Columbian and colonial periods; their perfect shape and large sizes; the lack of tools and locally found materials used to make the spheres; and the specialized production techniques. These traits have lead many to theorize as to the spheres’ existence, resulting in many ideas that lack scientific grounding.

Along these speculative lines, it has been said that the spheres are symbols of power, that they have religious connotations, are related to fertility, or are mythological representations of the sun and the moon. Other posit that they represent constellations or form part of astronomical calendars, that they have magical meanings, or that they are evidence of extraterrestrial visits.

However, in spite of all these hypotheses, it is very difficult to scientifically validate or disprove many of them. This is due to modern man’s erroneous actions surrounding these relics. They were brought to public light because while the United Fruit Company destroyed large tracts of forest in the southern region of Costa Rica to plant bananas. When they were preparing the earth for their plantations, they found several spheres, which were moved from their original location. Many of the spheres throughout the country, in fact, have been removed to form part of public and private collections. This removal means that we have lost their original context and other important elements to determine their meaning, such as ceramics, stone statues and metal objects that were buried in the surrounding areas.

About The Spheres
Materials and tools used

The spheres found in the Diquís Delta are made of several different materials. Most were made out of igneous rocks, such as diorite. However, in some areas they are made with sedimentary rocks like limestone and sandstone. It seems that the material used to make each sphere is related to the  raw materials located near the settlement. However, in places where there is no evidence of the spheres’ material aside from the spheres themselves, it is believed that they were transported after they were made, from the source of the material to their final placement.

Regarding the tools used, there is no physical evidence at all. However, everything points towards hammers and chisels made of stone with wood handles that helped sculpt, shape and establish the size of the spheres. Additionally, sanding and polishing, as well as the existence of carvings and decorations on the spheres, are evidence of a highly advanced carving technique.

Their size ranges between ten centimeters to 2.5 meters in diameter. The larger spheres were polished until they got a smooth, shiny surface.

The monumental nature of the spheres brings about another common question: How were they transported from the site of the raw materials to their final places? The most probably thesis is that they were moved by brute force, using tree trunks or some other type of lever. The ease of motion that the spheres offer supports this theory.

Symbolism and Use

In spite of all the theories surrounding the spheres, and that most of them have been moved from their original sites while the surroundings have been sacked (which makes any definitive theory difficult to prove), the Costa Rican archeologist Ifigenia Quintanilla states that the evidence suggests that the Diquís Delta spheres were symbols of identity and power. She writes of a “specialized production for consumption within the communities” including ornate gold necklaces, some statues and the spheres; they were not traded with other groups in the region. “The production of highly symbolic objects, like the spheres, in addition to being an expression of power, was meant to create a local identity. This could be related with ethnic aspects or a strategy of the ruling group to achieve cohesion among different social groups through identification of symbolic elements... Because of the association of sculpted objects (statues, spheres, large representations of animals) with large-scale architectural structures according to regional parameters, one can infer that there were ceremonial activities and exhibitions of power.”

The Spheres Today

According to information from the Museo Nacional de Costa Rica, most of the documented spheres have been moved and taken out of context. Ninety of the removed spheres are located near their original positions, and only fourteen are in their original spot. As the spheres were removed, we have lost valuable information regarding their fabrication and use.

However, there are local and national initiatives that work to keep the situation from getting worse. The Museo Nacional has helped create consciousness in the local community so that people might report spheres at risk, as well as promote permanent vigilance. Some of the spheres that had been taken to San Jose were returned to the community of Osa.

Currently, help has arrived in the form of a donation of 10 hectares to protect Finca 6 and its archeological treasures, as well as a .8 hectare plot to preserve the Bantamal site. The Museo Nacional administers these sites.

Finca 6
This site is currently under the auspices of the Museo Nacional. It protects thirteen large spheres, some of them in their original spots. The site also has two stone mounds that measure 30 meters across, as well as an ancient street.

The spheres at Finca 6 are symmetrical and very large (between 150 and 190 centimeters in diameter) and very carefully finished. One has carvings. The alignment of the spheres suggests that they are oriented both with the exit to the settlement and the sunset. These are the only remaining original placements of the spheres, which makes their care and study extremely valuable.

This article was written based on a visit to Finca 6, with the help of Francisco Corrales Ulloa, from the Department of Anthropology and History at Costa Rica’s Museo Nacional. The quotes from Ifigenia Quintanilla come from the book ESFERAS PRECOLOMBINAS DE COSTA RICA, Fundación de Museos del Banco Central, San José, Costa Rica, primera edición, 2007 

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