Ancient Artists Created Giant Magnetic Heads From Rock Struck By Lightning

Barrigones of La Democracia Escuintla Guatemala. Soaring Bear/Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0

These chubby-faced stone sculptures, carved some 2,000 years ago in current-day Guatemala, suggest that the ancient Mesoamericans had a sharp understanding of magnetism, perhaps even using the force for artistic or spiritual effect. 

After being brought from ancient sites in the Monte Alto region of Guatemala during the 1970s, the sculptures are now in the town of La Democracia, near Guatemala's Pacific coast. 

Reporting in the Journal of Archaeological Science earlier this year, scientists from Havard University explain that the sculptures contain magnetic anomalies on their surfaces. At least 10 of the 11 sculptures, all of which depict a plump face or a buxom body, have some kind of significant magnetic anomaly.

Strangest of all, magnetic mapping has shown that magnetism can only be found in certain distinct areas of the sculptures, such as their belly or cheeks, as if the artisans had an acute awareness of the rocks’ unusual properties while crafting the figures. This, they argue, is “intriguing yet inconclusive evidence” that Mesoamerican cultures had an early knowledge, perhaps even practical use, of magnetism. 

“Our direct observation is that there are magnetic anomalies consistently on certain features of these sculptures,” Roger Fu, Assistant Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences, said in a statement.

“There’s some chance it could happen randomly, but as we find more and more sculptures that are aligned like this, the smaller that likelihood is,” he continued. “In this paper, we looked at four, and we found a less than 1 percent chance that this wasn’t intentional.”

The rock most likely obtained its magnetism after becoming struck by lightning while still in the ground. All rocks contain magnetic minerals, although most of the time they only generate a minuscule magnetic field. However, rock can become more magnetized after becoming struck by a bolt of lightning because, after the zapping, the rock begins to cool and minerals like magnetite, hematite, and iron sulfides become aligned with Earth’s magnetic field. 

The cultural significance of the stone sculptures and their magnetic properties remains unclear, however, it’s speculated that the attraction was used to express or represent the power of the ruling elite’s ancestors. While we might never truly understand the meaning of the stones, they remain a deeply fascinating insight into the depth of knowledge that existed in the Americas before European colonialization. 

“In the Old World, there was some documentation of magnetism in the Greek world by the sixth century [BCE], and the first usable compass wasn’t until centuries later in China,” Fu said. “To me, what’s really interesting is this is a completely independent discovery. There’s a perception that the Old World is the advanced world and transferred all this knowledge to the New one, but we are realizing that they knew a lot, and I think this is one more piece of evidence for that.”

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