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Crop circles: Myth, theories and history

Crop circles in a field outside the village of Avebury, Wiltshire, England
A crop circle in a field outside the village of Avebury, Wiltshire, England (Image credit: Getty/ Paul Brown)

Crop circles — strange patterns that appear mysteriously overnight in farmers' fields and often attributed to aliens or UFOs — are not simply the wild fantasies of Hollywood directors. No, Crop circles are real. This phenomena provokes puzzlement, delight and intrigue among the press and public alike. 

The circles are mostly found in the United Kingdom, particularly in South-West England according to BBC Travel (opens in new tab), but have spread to dozens of countries around the world in past decades. The mystery has inspired countless books, blogs, fan groups, researchers (dubbed "cereologists" according to Pacific Standard (opens in new tab)) and even Hollywood  television series and films such as The X Files and M Night Shyamalan's Signs. 

Despite having been studied for decades, the question remains: Who, or what, is making them? 

Are crop circles a recent phenomenon?

A woodcut pamphlet that some claim represents an early crop circle.

Many people believe that crop circles have been reported for centuries, according to The Smithsonian Magazine (opens in new tab) . Their primary piece of evidence is a woodcut from 1678 that appears to show a field of oat stalks laid out in a circle, according to The Independent (opens in new tab). Some take this to be a first-hand eyewitness account of a crop circle, but a little historical investigation shows otherwise.

The chapbook itself, entitled The Mowing Devil (according to Oxford Reference (opens in new tab)), illustrates a folklore legend, in which an English farmer told a worker with whom he was feuding that he "would rather pay the Devil himself" to cut his oat field than pay the fee demanded. The source of the harvesting is not unknown or mysterious; it is indeed Satan himself, who — complete with signature horns and a tail — can be seen in the woodcut holding a scythe.

Related: What does the devil look like? 8 historical images of Satan

According to the Australian Geographic (opens in new tab), the worldwide crop circle phenomenon was heralded by an event in Tully, Australian 1966, a farmer said he saw a flying saucer rise up from a swampy area and fly away. When he went to investigate he saw a roughly circular area of debris and apparently flattened reeds and grass, which he assumed had been made by the alien spacecraft, but which Australian Geographic suggests might have been unusual animal behaviour. Referred in the press as "flying saucer nests," this story is more a UFO report than a crop circle report.

As in the 1678 mowing devil legend, the case for it being linked to crop circles is especially weak when we consider that the impression or formation was not made in a crop of any kind but instead in ordinary grass. A round impression in a lawn or grassy area is not necessarily mysterious (as anyone with a kiddie pool in the backyard knows). Indeed, mysterious circles have appeared in grass throughout the world that are sometimes attributed to fairies but instead caused by fungus, according to RHS (opens in new tab).

Modern crop circles

The Crop Circle, which appeared at Stonehenge, Wiltshire, England in 1996. (Image credit: Getty/ Heritage Images / Contributor)

In fact, the first real crop circles didn't appear until the 1970s, when simple circles began appearing in the English countryside. The number and complexity of the circles increased dramatically, reaching a peak in the 1980s and 1990s when increasingly elaborate circles were produced, according to an article by Nature (opens in new tab), including those illustrating complex mathematical equations.

In July 1996, according to Harry Eilenstein ("Crop Circles for Beginners (opens in new tab)", BoD 2021) one of the world's most complex and spectacular crop circles appeared in England, across a highway from the mysterious and world-famous Stonehenge monument in the Wiltshire countryside. It was an astonishing fractal pattern called a Julia Set, and while some simple or rough circles might be explained away as the result of a strange weather phenomenon, this one unmistakably demonstrated intelligence. The only question was whether that intelligence was terrestrial or extraterrestrial .

Making the design all the more mysterious, it was claimed that the circle appeared in less than an hour and during the daytime, according to BriteEvents (opens in new tab) — which, if true, would be virtually impossible for hoaxers to accomplish. The circle became one of the most famous and important crop circles in history.

What creates crop circles?

Crop Circles have often been thought to be caused by UFOs. (Image credit: Getty/ Bettmann)

Unlike other mysterious phenomenon such as psychic powers, ghosts, or Bigfoot, there is no doubt that crop circles are "real." The evidence that they exist is clear and overwhelming. The real question is instead what creates them — and there are ways to investigate that question.

We can look at both internal and external evidence to evaluate crop circles. Internal information includes the content and meaning of the designs (is there anything that indicates that any information contained in the "messages" is of extraterrestrial origin?), and external information, including the physical construction of the crop designs themselves (is there anything that indicates that the designs were created by anything other than humans?)

According to National Geographic (opens in new tab), crop circle enthusiasts have come up with many theories about what creates the patterns, ranging from the plausible to the absurd. One explanation in vogue in the early 1980s was that the mysterious circle patterns were accidentally produced by the especially vigorous sexual activity of horny hedgehogs, according to the Washington Post (opens in new tab). Some people have suggested that the circles are somehow created by localized and precise wind patterns, or by scientifically undetectable Earth energy fields and meridians called ley lines, according to Kent Heberling (opens in new tab)

Others, such as molecular biologist Horace Drew, suggest that the answer lies instead in time travel or alien life, according to The New Zealand Herald (opens in new tab). He theorizes that the patterns could be made by human time travelers from the distant future to help them navigate our planet. Drew, working on the assumption that the designs are intended as messages, believes he has decoded crop circle symbols and that they contain messages such as "Believe," "There is good out there," "Beware the bearers of false gifts and their broken promises," and "We oppose deception" (all, presumably, in English).

However, these odd, pseudo-biblical messages undermine the credibility of the crop circles, or at least the meaning read into them. Of all the information that an extraterrestrial intelligence might choose to convey to humanity — ranging from how to contact them to engineering secrets of faster-than-light travel — these aliens chose to impart intentionally cryptic messages about false gifts, broken promises, and hope for mankind (along with what seems to be a reference to a popular "The X-Files" slogan).

Many who favor an extraterrestrial explanation claim that aliens physically make the patterns themselves, according to Lockhaven University (opens in new tab),. Still others believe that it is human, not extraterrestrial, thought and intelligence that is behind the patterns — not in the form of hoaxers but some sort of  act of God, according to the BBC (opens in new tab)

While there are countless theories, the only known, proven cause of crop circles is humans. Their origin remained a mystery until September 1991, when two men confessed that they had created the patterns for decades as a prank to make people think UFOs had landed, according to an article by the LA Times (opens in new tab). Supposedly, according to the Australian Geographic  they had been inspired by the 1966 Tully UFO report. They never claimed to have made all the circles — many were copycat pranks done by others — but their hoax launched the crop circle phenomena. 

Whilst most crop circles are now attributed to hoaxers, crop circle researchers still search for  those which cannot be explained, "genuine crop circles" according to The Smithsonian Magazine (opens in new tab).

What are the common features of crop circles?

A triskelion crop circle. The symbol can be used to represent cycles, progress or competition. (Image credit: Thomas J. Sutter, Jr. public domain)

While there are always a few exceptions, virtually all crop circles share a set of common characteristics. 

Circles. Crop circles, as the name implies, almost always involve circles — rarely triangles, rectangles, or squares, though some designs contain straight or curved lines. Perhaps not coincidentally, a circle is the easiest pattern for hoaxers to create. 

Nocturnal creation. Crop circles are formed overnight, often sighted by farmers or passersby the next morning. Though there seems no logical reason for extraterrestrials or earth energies to only create patterns at night, it is obviously a great advantage for hoaxers to create the designs under the cover of darkness; full moon nights are especially popular. 

Camera shyness. Crop circles have never been recorded being made (except, of course, for those created by hoaxers). This is a very suspicious trait; after all, if mysterious earthly forces or aliens are at work, there's no reason to think that they wouldn't happen when cameras are recording. 

Access to roads. Crop circles usually appear in fields that provide reasonably easy public access, close to roads and highways. They rarely appear in remote, inaccessible areas. Because of this, the patterns are usually noticed within a day or two of their creation by passing motorists. 

There are many theories about what creates crop circles, including aliens, mysterious vortices, time travelers and wind patterns, but they all lack one important element: good evidence. The only known cause of crop circles is humans. Perhaps one day a mysterious, unknown source will be discovered for crop circles, but until the perhaps they are best thought of as collective public art.

Additional Resources

For an amusing take on the theory that extraterrestrials create crop circles, check out this paper by Ken Amis from Lock Haven University, The Truth About Crop Circles (opens in new tab). For more concerning the artists who create this incredible work, have a look at the Smithsonian magazine's The Art of the Crop Circle. (opens in new tab)Or if you just want to see some amazing photos of crop circles look at the Weather Channels 30 Incredible Photos of Crop Circles (opens in new tab).

Bibliography

Benjamin Radford
Benjamin Radford
Benjamin Radford is the Bad Science columnist for Live Science. He covers pseudoscience, psychology, urban legends and the science behind "unexplained" or mysterious phenomenon. Ben has a master's degree in education and a bachelor's degree in psychology. He is deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and has written, edited or contributed to more than 20 books, including "Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries," "Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore" and “Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits,” out in fall 2017. His website is www.BenjaminRadford.com.