The term was first used by paranormal researcher Colin Andrews to describe simple circles he was researching. While patterns involving complex geometries have been observed, the term circle has stuck as a generic term for crop patterns.
Many circles are known to be man-made, such as those created by Doug Bower, Dave Chorley, and John Lundberg. Bower and Chorley started the crop circle phenomenon in 1978 and were awarded an Ig Nobel Prize in 1992 for their crop circle hoaxing.
Various hypotheses have been offered to explain the formation of crop circles of unknown origin, ranging from the naturalistic to the paranormal. The main naturalistic explanation suggests that all crop circles are man-made, primarily as a hoax. Another naturalistic explanation is that they are caused by ball lightning. Paranormal explanations suggest that, while some crop circles are man-made, others are the product of alien spacecraft or supernatural processes such as communication from Gaia or from extraterrestrials. Various eyewitness accounts attribute the formations to balls of light or energy seen above the fields, leading some to believe the phenomena contain a message from the cosmos to humankind.
The earliest recorded image resembling a crop circle is depicted in a 17th-century English woodcut called the "Mowing-Devil". The image depicts the devil with a scythe mowing (cutting) an oval design in a field of oats. The pamphlet containing the image states that the farmer, disgusted at the wage his mower was demanding for his work, insisted that he would rather have "the devil himself" perform the task. That night, the crop appeared as if it were on fire, then in the morning an oval pattern had mysteriously appeared. A more recent historical report of crop circles was republished (from Nature, volume 22, pp. 290–291, 29 July 1880) in the January 2000 issue of the Journal of Meteorology. It describes the 1880 investigations by amateur scientist John Rand Capron:
"The storms about this part of Western Surrey have been lately local and violent, and the effects produced in some instances curious. Visiting a neighbour's farm on Wednesday evening (21st), we found a field of standing wheat considerably knocked about, not as an entirety, but in patches forming, as viewed from a distance, circular spots....I could not trace locally any circumstances accounting for the peculiar forms of the patches in the field, nor indicating whether it was wind or rain, or both combined, which had caused them, beyond the general evidence everywhere of heavy rainfall. They were suggestive to me of some cyclonic wind action,...''
In 1966, one of the most famous accounts of UFO traces happened in the small town of Tully, Queensland, Australia. A sugarcane farmer said he witnessed a saucer-shaped craft rise 30 or 40 feet (12 m) up from a swamp and then fly away, and when he went to investigate the location where he thought the saucer had landed, he found the reeds intricately weaved in a clockwise fashion on top of the water. The woven reeds could hold the weight of 10 men.
There are also many other anecdotal accounts of crop circles in Ufology literature that predate the modern crop circle phenomena, though some cases involve crops which were cut or burnt, rather than flattened.
Crop circles rose in prominence in 1975 as circles began appearing throughout the English countryside. The phenomenon of crop circles became widely known in the late 1980s, after the media started to report crop circles in Hampshire and Wiltshire and corresponding phenomena were reported from locations as diverse as Penrith in Australia and Minnesota in the United States. To date, approximately 12,000 crop circles have been discovered in sites across the world, from locations such as the former Soviet Union, the UK and Japan, as well as the U.S. and Canada. Skeptics note a correlation between crop circles, recent media coverage, and the absence of fencing and/or anti-trespassing legislation. However, proponents point to the simple profusion of these events prior to and continuing after the decline in media coverage as rendering the amateur crank phenomenon unlikely.
Although farmers have expressed concern at the damage caused to their crops, local response to the appearance of crop circles can often be enthusiastic, with locals taking advantage of the tourist potential of circles. Past responses have included bus or helicopter tours of circle sites, walking tours, t-shirts and book sales. Potential markets include curious tourists, scientists, crop circle researchers, and individuals seeking a spiritual experience by praying to and communing with spirits. Notably also, the crop generally continues to ripen in a 'genuine' circle, being laid flat rather than broken. Some researchers have found that the corn appears to have bent at the nodes of the stalks, showing that can only be replicated in the lab using a microwave oven. In rarer cases, this has occurred near the top of the stems, not the bottom, all but ruling out human involvement.
In 1996, a circle appeared near Stonehenge, and the farmer set up a booth and charged a fee. He collected £30,000 in four weeks. The value of the crop had it been harvested was probably about £150.
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