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Magnetized Potbelly Sculpture, Guatemala   Source: Roger R. Fu

Ancient Attraction: Mesoamerican Sculptors Created Magnetic Stone Figures

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Researchers from the world-famous Harvard University in America have made an astounding discovery in Guatemala.  They have collected evidence that a very ancient Mesoamerican culture intentionally created monumental human sculptures which are partially magnetized.

The study has found that the creators of the pieces were able to detect and carve magnetized rocks. These magnetic stone figures were possibly related to an ancient ancestor cult and the projection of power some 2,000 years ago.

An ancient people who belonged to the Monte Alto culture made massive human sculptures on what is now Guatemala’s Pacific coastline. This culture is believed to be very old and even predates the Maya and Olmecs. The culture is named after a site in Monte Alto and this is believed to have been first inhabited over 3,800 years ago.

Magnetic Stone Figures or ‘Potbelly Sculptures’

The people of these cultures made remarkable sculptures with one style known as ‘potbelly sculptures’. They represent a human head on top of a rounded body, and they have been formed from basalt boulders. They can stand six feet (two meters) high and ‘weigh 10,000 kilograms or more’ reports Sciencenews.

According to Science Direct they “may have represented the ancestors of the ruling class and given physical form to their heredity-based claim on power". Some argue that these monumental figures were used to demarcate territory or even for astronomical purposes.

A potbelly sculpture from Monte Alto in Guatemala, on display in the plaza of La Democracia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

A potbelly sculpture from Monte Alto in Guatemala, on display in the plaza of La Democracia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The team from Harvard, including Roger Fu, examined eleven large sculptures that were excavated at the Monte Alto site and that are now “on display in a plaza in the small town of La Democracia, near Guatemala's Pacific coast” according to LiveScience.

The researchers wanted to determine if a 1997 report that the figures had emitted magnetic fields was accurate and they checked a sample of eleven sculptures. Archaeological news network reports that with a handheld sensor they “precisely mapped magnetic fields on two head and two body sculptures”. The team also established that there were magnetic fields over the right temple, cheeks, forehead and around the belly button of at least six of the other figures in the study.

Magnetic anomalies on ‘Potbellies’ at Monte Alto (Roger R. Fu et al. 2019)

Magnetic anomalies on ‘Potbellies’ at Monte Alto (Roger R. Fu et al. 2019)

Sculptors knowledge of magnetism

According to ScienceDirect, the evidence suggests “that ancient sculptors knew how to detect magnetism, and that they had selected magnetic boulders to highlight these parts of the body”.

Significantly these magnetic fields are on parts of the human anatomy that were held to be of particular cultural and spiritual importance in Mesoamerican cultures. By magnetizing parts of the bodies of ancestors, Archaeology news networks quotes art historian Julia Guernsey who states that the local elites could demonstrate “the presence and authority of deceased ancestors in rapidly expanding societies”.  This could have been used to legitimize the authority of the ruling class during periods of change or unrest.

The ancient Mesoamericans are believed to have been the first to detect and understand magnetism. The Olmecs magnetized many figures and they possibly were influenced by the partly magnetized potbelly figures of the Monte Alto culture. According to Curiosmos Mesoamerican cultures were  “making magnetism part of their constructions centuries before the Greeks introduced it to the world”.

Takalik Abaj Monument 93, a potbelly style colossal head with a puffed face suggestive of a bloated cadaver. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Takalik Abaj Monument 93, a potbelly style colossal head with a puffed face suggestive of a bloated cadaver. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

How could they do it?

The researchers then sought to understand how the sculptors were able to use magnetized rocks and how they came to be magnetized.  Based on the Harvard’s team research, it seemed that at least four ‘were originally magnetized by lightning strikes pre-dating the carving process’ according to the Journal of Archaeological Science. It seems that the sculptors from 2000 years ago, were able to detect these lightning magnetized rocks and with great skill were able to carve them in such a way that the finished figures navel or brow was magnetic.

However, the lightning strike hypothesis does not explain why other potbelly figures have magnetic fields. There is the real possibility that the creators had the capability to identify magnetic elements within rocks. Such a finding would indicate how sophisticated the people of the Monte Alto culture were during the Late Mesoamerica classical period.

The evidence seems to offer convincing proof of early Native American societies’ appreciation of magnetism providing some insights into the very important but still enigmatic Monte Alto civilization.

Top image: Magnetized Potbelly Sculpture, Guatemala   Source: Roger R. Fu

By Ed Whelan

Ed Whelan's picture


My name is Edward Whelan and I graduated with a PhD in history in 2008. Between 2010-2012 I worked in the Limerick City Archives. I have written a book and several peer reviewed journal articles. At present I am a... Read More

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