Ancient Guatemalans Crafted Massive Sculptures Using Lightning and Magnetism

Pot belly sculpture cropped for tease only. Roger Fu
Monte Alto pot belly sculpture in Guatemala
This Monte Alto pot belly sculpture in Guatemala revealed that its maker made use of the forces of lightning and magnetism. Roger Fu/Harvard University

If there's one thing we've learned from studying ancient peoples, it's that we should never doubt their ingenuity, artistry, engineering prowess and mastery of the elements. Case in point, researchers have just discovered that people living at least 2,000 years ago near the Pacific Coast of what’s now Guatemala made use of the forces of lightning and magnetism to craft massive human sculptures, reports Science News.

These stone figures, aptly called "potbellies" due to their rotund body shapes, can be found strewn across the Guatemalan site of Monte Alto. The carvings are impressive, but we now know their design was far more intricate than previously realized.

Researchers have identified patterns in the magnetic fields of the rocks that potbellies were carved from, such that the figures consistently exhibit magnetized foreheads, cheeks and navels. What this means is that their carvers must have sought out boulders that were struck by lightning and thus magnetized in the right ways. Artisans may even have held naturally magnetized mineral chunks near iron-rich, basalt boulders to find areas in the rock where magnetic forces pushed back.

It demonstrates a mastery and understanding of magnetism that stretches back thousands of years before modern scientists began to truly decipher this force of nature themselves.

Honoring ancestors

potbelly sculptures from Guatemala
Roger Fu of Harvard studied these potbelly sculptures from Guatemala. Roger Fu/Harvard University

While it's impossible to know exactly what the significance of these giant sculptures were, researchers think they probably depicted deceased ancestors of high-ranking families. Sculptures with magnetized, repellant qualities might have indicated the presence and authority of these deceased ancestors from within the stones. It's also understood that ancient Mesoamericans attributed special powers to certain body parts, such as the face and midsection, which might explain why those are the parts of the sculptures that are often magnetized.

For the study, researchers used handheld sensors to carefully map out the magnetic fields of a couple different potbelly structures. The findings corroborate a 1997 report that also found magnetic signals coming from these sculptures.

Although potbellies vary enormously in size and weight, the largest weigh in at around 12 tons and measure 6.6 feet tall. They are imposing figures that would have conveyed a great deal about the status and power of whoever they were depicting.

It's fun to imagine exactly how the figures might have been adorned to make use of their magnetism, or how their magnetic qualities might have been used to show their power during religious ceremonies.