Crop Circles Evolve

July 3, 2009

Crop-circle designs in the grain fields of southern England have intrigued the public year after year. In 2009 for example, the appearance of a 600-foot jellyfish in Oxfordshire, followed by a 150-foot dragonfly in Wiltshire, seemed to represent the latest fashion. According to the   Telegraph (June 4, 2009), “crop circle enthusiasts claim the succession of animal designs have been created in an attempt to make people more aware of the threat of climate change. . . .” But what—or who—is making the artfully trampled designs?

An investigation into the crop-circle mystery that I conducted with forensic analyst John F. Fischer, and published in   Skeptical Inquirer in the winter 1992 issue, pointed clearly to human manufacture—not to wind vortexes, flying saucers, or other imagined cause. Examining years of crop-circle data, we discovered that the designs proliferated in the wake of media reports, exhibited a “shyness effect” (i.e., avoided being seen in the making), and were peculiarly disposed to appear largely in southern England (until media reports inspired circle-making elsewhere).

Significantly, they also were increasing in complexity over time. They may have been suggested by earlier hoaxed “flying saucer” impressions and burns. By the mid 1970s “classic” crop circles began to appear. Starting as simple swirled circles, they progressed to multiple circles, circles with rings and/or satellites, concentric circles, combinations of previous forms, and elaborate pictograms (emerging in 1990); then came rectilinear, triangular, and free-form designs, followed by simple-to-complex pictorials, and so on and on. And that simply takes us through 1992. Among later developments, the mid 1990s brought mathematically derived shapes called   fractals (based on repeated subdivision and utilized for computer art).

This progression in elaborateness—a sort of one-upmanship—was apparent from our 1992 study, but I confirm and develop it with the present iconological study. I conducted it primarily utilizing the   Andrews Crop Circle Catalogue (2002). It was compiled by Colin Andrews, a “cereologist” (after Ceres, the Roman goddess of vegetation). (My copy came inscribed: “To Joe/In a world so full of deceptions & denial, it’s imperative we take the skeptical route./Best wishes/ Colin Andrews/May 04.”) Colin—who did so much to promote crop-circles as “signs of contact”—himself refers to “the increasing complexity of the patterns.”

Some other crop-circle advances (given in Michael Glickman,   Crop Circles: The Bones of God , (2009) include “the first manifested pentagram,” 1993; “a fractal of triangles,” 1997; “a fractal of squares,” 1998; “a perfectly realized cube,” 1999; “the first use of one-point perspective,” 2006; the first figure “so specifically architectural,” 2007; and so on (Glickman 2009, 26, 81, 83, 112, 116). (As part of the complexity, consider the size. That also increased over time, a figure of roughly 40,000 square feet appearing in 1997, and one of about 70,000 square feet in 1998 [Glickman 2009, 67].)

Taken together, the four characteristics described—the escalation in frequency, the “shyness effect,” the geographic distribution, and the increase in complexity—are indicative of hoaxing. Extensive hoaxing has in fact been proved. Circle enthusiasts have yet to demonstrate any credible alternative hypothesis, and arguments against human agency are ultimately unconvincing. As one commentator expressed, the designs (many of them quite elaborate and beautiful) simply represent “a form of graffiti on the blank wall of southern England”—made by merry pranksters, self-styled crop artists, and others. (See my   Real-Life X-Files , 2001, 70—83.)