Crop circles — strange patterns that appear mysteriously overnight in farmers' fields—provoke puzzlement, delight and intrigue among the press and public alike. The circles are mostly found in the United Kingdom, 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") and even Hollywood films.
Despite having been studied for decades, the question remains: Who — or what — is making them?
Early crop circles
Many people believe that crop circles have been reported for centuries, a claim repeated in many books and websites devoted to the mystery. Their primary piece of evidence is a woodcut from 1678 that appears to show a field of oat stalks laid out in a circle. Some take this to be a first-hand eyewitness account of a crop circle, but a little historical investigation shows otherwise.
The woodcut actually illustrates what in folklore is called a "mowing devil" 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.
Modern crop circles
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, including those illustrating complex mathematical equations.
In July 1996, 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 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.
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