So what are crop circles, anyway? Impossible alien formations or just one big human hoax? (Turns out it’s the latter. Maybe.)

I wiped the gritty sweat from my eyes. My nostrils were filled with the earthy smell of hay, along with a few gnats and flies. I was on a farm in New York with two colleagues, creating a bona fide crop circle. I was no stranger to the literature, but to see it all first-hand, for me, is a rare occurrence, as most circles spring up across the Atlantic, in the UK.

Unlike Bigfoot or ghosts, we know that crop circles exist. There are no doubts about that. What is a mystery, however, is what actually creates them. There are many theories, ranging from the plausible to the laughable. Some claim the patterns are caused by mysterious natural phenomena, such as localized wind patterns or ball lightning. Others believe vigorous sex by amorous hedgehogs flatten the stalks. Then there are those who think it’s to do with secret satellites or “global human consciousness”. With little evidence, one theory is seemingly as good as any another. But, to explain further, let me take you back to the beginning…

Crop circles first appeared in 1970s rural England. They were few and the ones that appeared were quite simple at first, but over the decades they’ve become increasingly complex. This led many to believe in one of the most popular explanations: aliens. But then, in 1991, two Englishmen, Doug Bower and Dave Chorley, confessed they had created the original patterns as a hoax, to make people think UFOs had landed. They used “stalk stompers;” ropes attached to wooden boards. They never claimed to have made all the circles—many were copycat pranks done by others—but their stunt had certainly launched the crop circle craze.

So, with all the hype, I wanted to try my hand at making one myself. In the wheat field, armed with a rope, tape measure, and homemade stalk stompers, we created an impressive double-circle design that was 33 meters long by 24 meters wide. The process took only a few hours and was easier and faster than we’d expected. Had we been hoaxers, watching the local news for the discovery of our work would definitely have been amusing and rewarding.

Massimo Polidoro, an investigator with the Italian skeptics group CICAP (Comitato Italiano per il Controllo delle Affermazioni sulle Pseudoscienze), notes that a member of his group, “has learned from some of the best circle makers in England… Each summer he and a group design a crop circle and (with permission) produce it overnight. Inevitably someone spots the mysterious shape and states that it could not have been hoaxers—until the artists reveal themselves and show video of their work.”

Yet, despite the confessions, not everyone is convinced. While diehard believers admit that people make many—perhaps even most—crop circles, they also claim that “real” circles have unusual properties not found in manmade ones, though no one has scientifically proven a difference between the two. Researcher Colin Andrews, in his book Crop Circles: Signs of Contact, believes: “If hoaxers simply stopped, threw away their boards, coiled up their ropes, and simply went away… crop formations would continue to appear, and every one of them would be a source of wonder.” Andrews is right that any crop circles proven not to be hoaxes would be a source of wonder, but as of now hoaxers (and me) are their only known creators. Here’s what we know for sure: crop circle patterns—whether created by alien, human, and/or horny hedgehog— are beautiful and enigmatic, if a little messy to make.

Benjamin Radford is an investigator, Research Fellow for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and author of ten books, including Mysterious New Mexico and Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries.