The stone spheres of Costa Rica's South Pacific are one of the most outstanding examples of art and technology of pre-Columbian America. A few decades ago, they were considered a great mystery. 

Pre-columbinas Stone Spheres of Costa Rica

 
 Precolumbian Stone Spheres in Costa Rica 3The stone spheres of Costa Rica's South Pacific are one of the most outstanding examples of art and technology of pre-Columbian America. A few decades ago, they were considered a great mystery. However, recent archaeological research can answer many questions that come up when one comes to know these extraordinary sculptures.

Why are they an example of pre-Columbian art and technology? 

Precolumbian Stone Spheres in Costa Rica 11As a sculptural object, the spheres are unique in richness and variety of representations of pre-Columbian America.  The sphere, an abstract form, was embodied in Precolumbian Stone Spheres in Costa Rica 10stone. And not just once but hundreds of times in different sizes. 
They are an example of the mastery of techniques of almost perfect grinding and polishing and fine finishes on the surface of most of them. They are also an example of the ability to organize a difficult and highly accurate job, to make the sculptures weighing up to 15 tons, to transport and to deploy them in locations often far from where it took natural stone.
 It should be noted that these spheres were produced by social groups which do not use the wheel, or draft animals or metal tools. There is evidence of collective forms of work organization and constitute the sample material of knowledge, experience, desires and social decisions.
Precolumbian Stone Spheres in Costa Rica 11

Where are the spheres? 

Pre-columbinas Stone Fields of Costa Rica 12 The territory of archeological sites which have the Stone spheres is Costa Rica's South Pacific. There are other places in the world where they have found ancient settlement spheres, and many more naturally rounded stones have been found.. However, the stone spheres of Costa Rica's South Pacific are unique because nowhere else is there such a concentration, or are so perfect and reach sizes and quantities as those occurring in this region.

When and in what social context were they made? 

The older spheres were first built about 1,500 years ago (around 400 AD) in the period known as "Good Waters". They were developed at the same time as other sculptures in South America. Those were times of social change, new cultural practices, the onset of forms of social inequality and spatial differentiation between peoples who were historically linked.
Skilled craftsmen emerged as people dedicated to create objects that reproduce new ideologies, and spheres were consolidated as representation in connection with a territory within a larger cultural region: the so-called Greater Chiriquí
The places with the first spheres are located in different parts of the South Pacific. It is not known which was the first sphere and the first settlement that was used. What is known is that the former was already high and that for site "Balls", were monumental (156 cm in diameter). 
About 1,200 or 1,300 years ago, with the beginning of a period called Chiriquí (800 AD-1500 AD) there was a series of changes in the region. Population increased, settlements were larger and the use of artificial mounds and major structures within the village was consolidated. Intensified agriculture, metallurgy of gold and copper was developed with great skill, and began making ceramic sculptures and new iconography and forms. 
From this date, there was an increase in the number of spheres, and a lot of 
monumental copies were developedSierpe delta or delta-Térraba Diquís became the main center of the villages to spheres in this period. 
The spheres were developed in the context of hierarchical societies. In the first period (Good Waters) were the first signs of social change, in the period Chiriquí their production and use are intimately related to the consolidation of stratified societies.

Who Made Them? 

Precolumbian Stone Spheres in Costa Rica 9Indigenous societies that made and used the spheres belonged to the long-established territorial groups that inhabited the region for centuries. Spheres and other objects were strongly linked to social practices related to the local symbolic world. 
Its use was restricted to the Rio Grande of Térraba and a few neighbouring areas like Golfito, Uvita and Caño Island. These places are only a segment of the vast territory that spanned the Great Chiriquí archaeological region, indicating that there were significant differences in the production and use of symbolic elements at the local level, although other elements were shared. 
The spheres were made over a thousand years. Therefore, it is not possible to link them to a single people, nor is it possible to explain them based on only one meaning or use. 
Even though five indigenous ethnic groups are currently living in the region, not enough evidence has been found to assign the spheres to any of them. It is highly likely to be linked to the ancestors of today's borucas. However, one must be careful with this, since the process of conquest led to the disappearance of other peoples as dorasques chánguenas or those living in the same territory as the borucas.

What is the size and what types of rock are they? 

It is estimated that the number of spheres that were produced in the South Pacific were more than 300. The diameters range from 10 cm to 2.57 m. However, the average size is between 60 and 120 cm. Precolumbian Stone Spheres in Costa Rica 1

Precolumbian Stone Spheres in Costa Rica 6Although they are exceptional, the larger spheres draw a lot of attention. There are 20 known spheres with diameters greater than 150 cm and weight of over 3, 5 tons. The three largest exceed 2 meters in diameter and 9 tons. 
The spheres can be grouped by type of stone used to produce them. The main group is the gabbroidic rock, a type of rock similar to granite, with high strength and toughness. There is also a group consisting of grain-diorites. Both types of rocks are plutonic, ie originating in the Earth's interior andsurfaced by various geological processes. What the indigenous people did was take advantage of large blocks that surfaced in the beds of rivers, streams and hillsides
A Precolumbian Stone Spheres in Costa Rica 8third group of spheres was made in limestone and is only used in the Diquís Delta, where a very small number of these spheres were found. Another group was made of sandstone spheres, of which 11 have been found in the Pilas-Pejibaye zone. A fifth group of six spheres was made with Precolumbian Stone Spheres in Costa Rica 5andesite, which are mainly located in the Coto Brus valley. All rocks are found naturally in the South Pacific. That is why we speak of a use of local raw materials. 
The larger spheres were of great value and possibly great social value, not only for what they represented in terms of backlog, but by the same collective capacity of manufacturing.

How did they make them? 

So far, no fabrication shop has been excavated, but thanks to the detailed study of the characteristics of many spheres it has been identified that there have been traces left of various tools and work processes. 
 The spheres were made with the technology of the stone.  Ancient knowledge of chopping and polish rocks with other harder techniques was used to manufacture the stones. These work techniques are based on a thorough understanding of the nature and processes to transform natural stone into tools or art objects. 
The instruments used to manufacture them were clubs, hammers, chisels and pointers.  Sandstone rocks or sand and leather were also used to smooth or polish the surface and give a good finish. 
The spheres, according to the size they had, needed different stages of work, and greater or lesser participation of people in the search and selection of the block, in their relocation to work, in size and moved to its final location.  The participation of people in their care and maintenance  was also required
Sphere manufacturing was in the hands of skilled craftsmen, who had an accumulated knowledge of ancient stonework. Taking into account the existence of hundreds of spheres of different sizes, you can say that this specialized production was not poor, but rich and developed over a long period of time.

How were they used? 

The spheres were used mainly in residential areas and public spaces regardless of the period to which they relate. They were public sculptures, made to be seen permanently, so they may not have been sacred, except for some special issue. The spheres were used in areas between architectural structures on hilltops and at the base of the ramps to them, in corridors and in parks and public spaces. 
There is a closer relationship between the size and use of the spheres. The common size used in an undifferentiated manner, but the largest and monuments wePrecolumbian Stone Spheres in Costa Rica 2re placed in groups in open spaces in the large settlements. In addition, they were worked and cared for so that its surface was smooth and in some cases, glossy or shiny. Some drawings were also made. 
The sites with spheres usually associated with artificial mounds and walls filled up to three meters tall. These mounds were circular, oval and rectangular. Their sizes varied between 10 m and 30 or more in diameter. Foundations of houses, paved roads and burial areas around the areas with spheres were discovered. 
Few spheres have been found associated with funerary sites, indicating that the spheres were produced and placed in public use based on a political-ceremonial use, where the location, shape, size, finish and number determined the use and meaning of them. 
The production and use of spheres was not an isolated element. Over a thousand years, they were produced for use and views with other sculptural objects in settlements where there were often spaces and open spaces in which public sculptures looked like. Large settlements reached up to 30 fields, the little, a few specimens were made for domestic consumption, not for the exchange, hence its circulation and use has been relatively limited.

What is sought to represent with them? 

The fields reproduced the concept of sphericity. It is not possible to determine what they meant. While common representations in other art forms revolved around the natural world, whether animal, plant or human, the spheres represented an abstraction not present in the natural world. It is very likely that this is related to the design world with its knowledge of astronomy or cosmology, but that is something that can not be assured.  
Spheres were created with community and belonging. The collective ownership of such objects, especially the larger ones, possibly gave prestige to the community and its leaders. They may also have been indicators of ethnic differences, since the region was inhabited by different peoples. They also represented economic power, and skilled craftsmen who could hold and organize collective work. 
The spheres involved knowledge, symbolic value and meaning beyond the archaeological research. This is made more difficult because of the destruction of many of the archaeological sites with spheres. However, scientific research is gradually providing new insights to understand these unique indigenous creations.

Heritage and spheres 

The stone spheres are a part of the rich heritage that is home to Costa Rica. They are unique, but part of a larger whole that needs to be understood and protected as a whole. Scientists, local communities, the State, enterprises and other stakeholders should be actors in the conservation, preservation and better understanding of this legacy.

By the expert: 
Archaeologist Ifigenia Quintanilla Jiménez 
Autonomous University of Barcelona 

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