Guatemala's 'FAT BOYS' - A Pre-Columbian Mystery

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Due to Soconusco's location almost in line with the historic movement of the north magnetic pole, compasses used in the region would have continued to experience a magnetic declination of virtually the same magnitude throughout the last 500-600 years, unlike those used at such a place as London, England. Whether the movement of the pole during prehistoric times followed a similar path is unknown.


In this connection, however, it is interesting to note that the known shift of the north magnetic pole has been from just north of the Russian islands of Novaya Zemlya sometime about the year 1000 to between Spitsbergen and Greenland about 1500 and into the Queen Elizabeth Islands of the Canadian Arctic by about 1900. While this shift represented a major change in declination for residents of the Old World -- from about 15-20º east of north to the same relative distance west of north over roughly a thousand years -- had this movement been viewed from the longitude of Soconusco (i.e., 90º W), it would have been hardly noticeable. In other words, a compass needle would have pointed almost due north throughout that entire time.

               Finally, it should be noted that in Michael Coe's excavations at San Lorenzo in the late 1960's, a piece of magnetite measuring about 2.5 cm. (1 in.) in length and a little less than a 0.5 cm (0.25 in.) in cross-section was uncovered, prompting him to envision it as a part of a compass. Testing its direction-finding properties by floating it on a cork mat, Coe noted that it consistently oriented itself to the same point slightly west of magnetic north.

More-exhaustive tests (involving the suspension of the magnetite bar on a thread) were later carried out by John Carlson, who reported that the object's orientational ability did not come closer than about 35º to the north magnetic pole (Carlson, 1975, 753). Thus, it could conceivably have been used as a direction-finder, but with scarcely more "preference" for north than for either east or west.


All of the roughly dozen magnetic sculptures which are known from Mesoamerica. are found within the volcanic bedrock zone of piedmont Soconusco. Several other areas of volcanic bedrock exist in Mesoamerica, such as in the Tuxtla Mountains and along the Transverse Volcanic Axis which runs across the center of Mexico from Citlaltépetl (Orizaba) in the east to Volcán Colima in the west; however, in none of them did the local inhabitants recognize the presence of magnetic iron ore as they apparently did in Soconusco. Because magnetism appears always to have been associated with relatively massive stone carvings which could not be easily moved, the knowledge of this force seems never to have diffused beyond the region.


               It appears, therefore, that the knowledge of magnetism never really diffused farther than Soconusco, and then only so far as the local bedrock remained basalt. With the possible exception of some localized use having been made of the magnetite bar found by Coe at San Lorenzo, it likewise appears that the potential use of geomagnetism for direction finding was never fully appreciated by the early Mesoamericans.

The author's discovery of the magnetic properties of, first the turtle's head at Izapa, and later, the "Fat Boys" of Guatemala, have served little but to add a dimension of "background static" to the whole equation of Mesoamerican intellectual development. This is because, apart from appreciating their awareness of the force, we know neither how they discovered it nor to what use they may have put it. My imaginative speculation that it may somehow have been associated with the homing instinct in the turtle leads me to insert one final footnote in passing:

The Chinese, who are generally credited with having been the first culture to appreciate the direction-finding capacity of geomagnetism, use the term "black-turtle rock" as their description for basalt. Moreover, when they began fashioning compasses with which to navigate, many of their earliest models were made in the form of turtles.

One hesitates to raise the question of independent invention versus diffusion -- especially over such a vast expanse as the Pacific -- but in any case the similarity or coincidence in thought patterns is rather striking.

Thus, with no real answers at hand, we must conclude that, for the Mesoamericans, magnetism probably remained nothing more than an awe-inspiring marvel of nature.


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