Mesoamerican Sculptures Reveal Early Knowledge of Magnetism
by Joshua Rapp Learn Smithsonian.com
Magnets are a mystery that has baffled scientists and philosophers for millennia, and researchers still don’t fully understand the properties that give magnetic fields their potency. Ancient Greek legend held that a shepherd named Magnes first discovered the curious force when a stone pulled at his iron staff in an area of Greece then known as Magnesia.
Whether or not Magnes the shepherd actually existed, he wasn’t the only ancient human to notice the funny characteristics of certain types of stone. The first culture to become aware of magnetic material is a matter of open debate, but new evidence suggests ancient cultures in the Americas had knowledge of magnetic forces long before the first pocket compasses.
The ancient Monte Alto people of Mesoamerica, for example, used stone that had been magnetized when struck by lightning to build giant heads and potbellied sculptures centuries before the rise of the great Maya civilizations. A new study published in the Journal of Archaeological Science suggests this civilization, which flourished in present-day Guatemala around 500 B.C. to 100 B.C., must have had some way to detect the relative strength of the magnetized stones.