A crop circle or crop formation is a pattern created by flattening a crop, usually a cereal. The term was first coined in the early 1980s by Colin Andrews. Crop circles have been described as all falling “within the range of the sort of thing done in hoaxes” by Taner Edis, professor of physics at Truman State University. Although obscure natural causes or alien origins of crop circles are suggested by fringe theorists, there is no scientific evidence for such explanations, and all crop circles are consistent with human causation.
The number of crop circles has substantially increased from the 1970s to current times. There has been little scientific study of them. Circles in the United Kingdom are not spread randomly across the landscape but appear near roads, areas of medium to dense population and cultural heritage monuments, such as Stonehenge or Avebury. In 1991, two hoaxers, Bower and Chorley, took credit for having created many circles throughout England after one of their circles was described by a circle investigator as impossible to be made by human hand.
Formations are usually created overnight, although some are reported to have appeared during the day. In contrast to crop circles or crop formations, archaeological remains can cause cropmarks in the fields in the shapes of circles and squares, but they do not appear overnight, and they are always in the same places every year.
Early reports of circular formations
A 1678 news pamphlet The Mowing-Devil: or, Strange News Out of Hartfordshire is claimed by some cereologists to be the first depiction of a crop circle. Crop circle researcher Jim Schnabel does not consider it to be a historical precedent because it describes the stalks as being cut rather than bent. (see folklore section)
In 1686, British naturalist Robert Plot reported on rings or arcs of mushrooms (see fairy rings) in The Natural History of Stafford-Shire and proposed air flows from the sky as a cause. In 1991 meteorologist Terence Meaden linked this report with modern crop circles, a claim that has been compared with those made by Erich von Däniken.
An 1880 letter to the editor of Nature by amateur scientist John Rand Capron describes how a recent storm had created several circles of flattened crops in a field.
In 1932, archaeologist E C Curwen observed four dark rings in a field at Stoughton Down near Chichester, but could examine only one: “a circle in which the barley was ‘lodged’ or beaten down, while the interior area was very slightly mounded up.”
In 1963 amateur astronomer Sir Patrick Moore described a crater in a potato field in Wiltshire, which he considered was probably caused by an unknown meteoric body. In nearby wheat fields, there were several circular and elliptical areas where the wheat had been flattened. There was evidence of “spiral flattening”. He thought they could be caused by air currents from the impact, since they led towards the crater. Astronomer Hugh Ernest Butler observed similar craters and said they were likely caused by lighting strikes.
In the 1960s, in Tully, Queensland, Australia, and in Canada, there were many reports of UFO sightings and circular formations in swamp reeds and sugar cane fields. For example, on 8 August 1967, three circles were found in a field in Duhamel, Alberta, Canada, and the Department of National Defence sent two investigators, who concluded that it was artificially made but couldn’t make definite conclusions on who made them or how. The most famous case is the 1966 Tully “saucer nest”, when a farmer said he witnessed a saucer-shaped craft rise 30 or 40 feet (12 m) up from a swamp and then fly away. When he went to investigate the location where he thought the saucer had landed, he found a nearly circular area 32 feet long by 25 feet wide where the grass was flattened in clockwise curves to water level within the circle, and the reeds had been uprooted from the mud. The local police officer, the Royal Australian Air Force, and the University of Queensland concluded that it was most probably caused by natural causes, like a down draught, a willy-willy (dust devil), or a waterspout. In 1973, G.J. Odgers, Director of Public Relations, Department of Defence (Air Office), wrote to a journalist that the “saucer” was probably debris lifted by the causing willy-willy. Hoaxers Bower and Chorley said they were inspired by this case to start making the modern crop circles that appear today.
Since the 1960s, there had been a surge of UFOlogists in Wiltshire, and there were rumours of “saucer nests” appearing in the area, but they were never photographed. There are other pre-1970s reports of circular formations, especially in Australia and Canada, but they were always simple circles, which could have been caused by whirlwinds. In Fortean Times David Wood reported that in 1940 he had already made crop circles near Gloucestershire using ropes. In 1997, the Oxford English Dictionary recorded the earliest usage of the term “crop circles” in a 1988 issue of Journal of Meteorology, referring to a BBC film. The coining of the term “crop circle” is attributed to Colin Andrews in the late 1970s or early 1980s.