The Klerksdorp Spheres
Imagine miners or rockhounds working in a 3 billion year old rock deposit, when suddenly what pops out of the rock, but a flawless metallic sphere. It's a rare combination of alloys, unusual for anywhere on Earth, and it's more perfectly round than any human manufacturing technique could produce. But not only that, it has three perfect parallel grooves etched around its equator. It is quite obviously artificial, so what could it be doing in this 3 billion year old deposit? This is the mystery posed by a set of objects known as the Klerksdorp spheres, and which some authors have explained — convincingly to some — they are examples of out of place artifacts (OOParts) that are best explained as relics of an extinct ancient advanced civilization. Today we're going to find out if a dividing line between fact and fiction intersects the story of the Klerksdorp spheres, and if it does, exactly where along that spectrum does it slice.
The spheres are a series of round rocks, many of them being in the 3-10cm range, think between a golf ball and a cantaloupe. They were found around the town of Ottosdal in South Africa, a region in which pyrophyllite deposits are found, on the order of 3 billion years old, give or take. That's very old, as rocks go. There is no firm count for how many Klerksdorp spheres there are, probably lots and lots of them: most have probably been collected privately, but a few are best known for being on display at the Klerksdorp Museum about an hour away, from where they get their name. One of these, which is the one you're most likely to see if you do an Internet search for them, is blotchy brownish in color but with three thin, remarkable white or yellow lines, perfectly straight and parallel, circumscribing its equator. It actually is quite an impressive artifact; and if you showed it to me, having no knowledge of its origin, there would be little doubt in my mind that it was manufactured artificially.
This conclusion was shared by the creationist authors Michael Cremo and Richard Thompson in their 1993 book Forbidden Archeology: The Hidden History of the Human Race. This book spoke of many artifacts around the world that they believed constituted evidence of pre-Flood advanced civilizations, and they included a page on the Klerksdorp spheres. They included a quote they attributed to Roelf Marx, curator of the Klerksdorp Museum:
Though Marx went on to explain that the spheres had been explained as limonite concretions by a local geologist, they dismissed this explanation based on the low hardness of limonite compared to Marx's assertion that the stones could not be scratched even by steel. This, plus the undeniable fact of the three parallel grooves, left them no explanations other than artificial manufacture by intelligent beings.
Other promotions in pop culture followed, driven by the mention in Forbidden Archaeology. A 1996 television special, The Mysterious Origins of Man, described them as metallic spheres and reported that specialists had declared no natural process could account for the three lines. In a 1979 article titled Strange Relics from the Depths of the Earth, creationist J. R. Jochmans explained why it's often creationists who promote these ancient advanced civilization claims:
The most remarkable claim about the stones is that inside a display case at the Klerksdorp Museum, which is described as "vibration free", the stones are claimed to rotate about their axes with no external influence. As this was widely repeated in articles and on websites about the stones, the source of this claim — Roelf Marx again — spoke up and said he'd been misquoted by a reporter. In fact the case was subject to the same vibrations that everything else in the Museum was frequently subjected to: subterranean explosions in the local mines, which caused the stones in the case to roll around, not unexpectedly. And perhaps this misquote is that place where we should draw our line between fact and fiction. Because up until now, virtually everything about the stones has been either fabricated or misrepresented.
We can begin with their appearance. None of them are perfectly spherical, or even anywhere in the neighborhood of it. They are generally roundish in the way that many rocks are, particularly concretions. Even the famous one with the three grooves is pretty squished; you would never describe it as spherical. They do not appear to be metallic. Many may have higher concentrations of metals in their chemical makeup then others, but they all look and feel like rocks. Simple chemical analysis has found they're mostly made of varying proportions of hematite, wollastonite, and pyrite (the earlier identification reported by Marx as "limonite" is a more general term, and is basically correct). None of the stones has ever been found to be any harder on the Mohs scale than its chemical content would predict.
Concretions are nodules that form inside sedimentary rock. If you've ever walked in a canyon with exposed rock faces, you've likely seen round rock inclusions in those faces; those were probably concretions. Some are the result of mineral-rich water seeping through the sediment and precipitating into cavities where those minerals solidify around some nucleus. Others are the result of impurities in the sediment that are squeezed out when that sediment undergoes metamorphosis, and the Klerksdorp spheres are of this type. As the pyrophyllite crystallized, various impurities were forced into voids where they coalesced with other minerals. Since they are formed of random impurities in dispersed pyrophyllite deposits, the Klerksdorp spheres have varying chemical makeups and different appearances. Some may be high in metal content, which is what's behind the early reports that these were "metal balls".
The grooves are the result of layers in the sediment in which the concretions were formed. Laminations between these layers were finer grained than the layers themselves, and as the concretions grew within them they grew faster against the coarser layers than against the finer laminations. When we see a concretion with a groove around it, we're seeing the evidence of its slower growth against a lamination. Stack several sedimentary layers, each with such laminae between them, and when a concretion forms across them, it might be lucky enough to have three parallel grooves or lines around its center like that most-often photographed Klerksdorp sphere. No advanced machining by an ancient civilization needed.
So that's the science and the pseudoscience behind the Klerksdorp spheres. There's nothing particularly new or surprising there; if you've been listening to Skeptoid for any length of time, you already know that this is a pretty commonplace circumstance: something mundane gets exaggerated by pseudoscientists and a whole legend builds up around it, despite there being really nothing of any particular interest there. In fact, the Klerksdorp spheres are even less unique than you might think.
The fine grain of the Ottosdal sediments means the grooves in the Klerksdorp spheres are the clearest I've been able to find, but other stones do have them, and from the exact same geological process. Notable examples include the Moqui Marbles in the Navajo sandstone of southern Utah. These concretions grew in much coarser sediment so their lines are not nearly as perfect, but they're much larger and more pronounced. Some Moqui Marbles look like walnuts with great rough ridges around them, others have deep equatorial gouges. Many have two or three ridges and gouges.
We've even found these on Mars. Nicknamed Martian blueberries, these are hematite concretions found in large concentrations by the Opportunity rover. Most are generally round and some display the same ridges and gouges.
So-called button rocks found in the Catskill Mountains of New York state display very fine grooves and ridges; while these rocks are not especially spherical, their overall shapes are like spinning tops and other things that look like they could have been made on a craftsman's lathe.
We also have innumerable examples of concretions far more spherical than anything found at Ottosdal. Famous examples of these include some very large ones found on some New Zealand beaches, which can be up to 3 meters in diameter; the best of them can be astonishingly spherical. There are also the Cannonball Concretions in the Cannonball River Valley of North Dakota in the United States. They're aptly named, as a lot of them are just about the same size and spherical shape as cannonballs.
Jochmans' explanation about why creationism best explains these alternative interpretations of common geologic artifacts also explains why extraordinary claims about everyday objects will probably always persist. But strip the creationism arguments aside, and there's still reason to appreciate these stones, and many other unusual byproducts of geophysical processes. They're very cool. Many are beautiful to look at, many prompt us to wonder how they came to be. Appreciate the Klerksdorp spheres for what they are, not for what they are not.
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