On a lonely desert plain in southern Peru, a team of researchers are scanning the landscape for relics from an ancient time. Almost a century earlier, pilots spotted vast geoglyphs etched into the dusty floor here, and those etchings have been a source of wonderment ever since. But there’s still more to be discovered in this desolate landscape. And as the experts follow an artificial intelligence system, they come across something astonishing – a mysterious figure that has remained hidden for thousands of years.
In 2019 a team from Japan’s Yamagata University were working in the Pampa Colorada – a desert that stretches to the northwest of the Peruvian city of Nazca. And for the last 15 years, they had been studying the infamous Nazca Lines. These strange shapes had once been left behind by those who used to inhabit this wild and isolated place.
While using AI technology, the group identified the potential location of new geoglyphs – marking a fresh chapter in the saga of the Nazca Lines. Armed with their data, they then began an investigation of the desert, keen to put the AI predictions to the test. And, incredibly, before long the researchers had confirmed the monumental find.
The Pampa Colorada has long been known as a special place, however. Covering around 555 square miles, the plain sits on a plateau with the Pacific Ocean on one side and the Andes Mountains on the other. But scores of tourists aren’t only drawn to the area’s natural beauty. In 1994, you see, the desert’s mysterious geoglyphs earned the region a place on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
And despite the remoteness of the location, humans have been making the journey to Pampa Colorada for thousands of years. In around 200 B.C., the Nazca people emerged on the south coast of what is now Peru, and for the following 800 years their culture thrived in the fertile lowlands to the southwest of the Andes.
Proving themselves highly creative, the Nazca built a grand city, known as Ventilla, and constructed aqueducts to help combat potential drought. Some 30 miles from the coast, meanwhile, they founded another settlement: the sacred site of Cahuachi. There, religious ceremonies were conducted in and around a Great Temple that stretched more than 65 feet above ground.
Today, though, the Nazca are remembered for what was perhaps their greatest achievement: a series of geoglyphs etched into the desert between the two cities. Believed to have been created some 2,000 years ago, these complex designs cover some 190 square miles of the Pampa Colorada. And even now, their original purpose is hotly debated.
Known today as the Nazca Lines, these geoglyphs depict a variety of animal and plant species on the desert floor. In one design, a monkey sprawls 360 feet across the plain, while a 210-foot killer whale lurks nearby. Also depicted are a spider, a lizard and a dog along with several other members of the animal kingdom.
Elsewhere, airborne creatures such as a hummingbird, a pelican and a condor make appearances. In other places, the Nazca used their skills to depict trees, flowers and other distinctive shapes. But despite their obvious beauty, these designs have long proved a source of bewilderment for researchers looking to uncover their secrets.
Before the team at Yamagata University began their investigation, experts believed that there were around 70 plant and animal geoglyphs etched into the desert – a remarkable number by itself. But that wasn’t all. You see, the same people had also created in excess of 300 geometric designs and over 800 straight lines across the Pampa Colorada.
On the surface, it’s not particularly difficult to see how the Nazca Lines were made. According to specialists, the ancient inhabitants of this region simply removed rocks on the surface of the ground, exposing the fairer-colored desert floor beneath as a result. And when viewed from the air – even thousands of years later – this contrast produces intricate designs across the plain.
But why were the Nazca – who, after all, lived centuries before humans took to the skies – creating images that were apparently designed to be seen from above? Well, over the years, this mystery has led one writer to an unlikely conclusion: that the lines were created to act as a landing aid for visitors from outer space.
That was the opinion of Erich von Däniken, who wrote about the geoglyphs in his 1968 book Chariots of the Gods? And according to the author, a number of ancient civilizations were actually in communication with extraterrestrial lifeforms, who supposedly helped in the creation of structures such as the Great Pyramids and the Nazca Lines.
Unsurprisingly, though, there are not many mainstream researchers who accept von Däniken’s theory. And that’s despite the fact that the designs have been the subject of much debate ever since they were first rediscovered in the 1920s. So, why were these strange patterns really etched into the desert floor all those centuries ago?
In the 1940s American historian Paul Kosok saw the Nazca Lines himself from on high and came to his own conclusion. Looking at the arrangement of the designs, he theorized that they may once have had an astronomical significance. And, later, the work of the German archaeologist Maria Reiche appeared to support this idea.
According to Reiche, the Nazca Lines were designed to serve as an astronomical calendar, with the animals corresponding to the constellations above. Ultimately, though, other researchers would come to dispute this theory. And so, in 1997, the Nasca-Palpa Project was established with the aim of solving the conundrum once and for all.
For years, experts from the project studied the Nazca Lines as well as some similar geoglyphs located at Palpa, around 14 miles to the north. And after this analysis, the group concluded that the designs had once served as ceremonial pathways walked as part of a religious ritual. Today, this is probably the most popular hypothesis – although the matter is far from closed.
In the meantime, the Pampa Colorada has become a popular visitor destination – and it’s all because of the Nazca Lines. Today, chartered flights take tourists high above the desert, where they can witness the ancient designs in all their mysterious glory for themselves.
And as the Nazca Lines still hold many secrets, it’s perhaps no surprise that they’re still the subject of academic scrutiny. In 2004, then, researchers at Yamagata University began studying the geoglyphs, using satellite images to help determine the construction of these strange features. Then, from 2010, the team moved their work into the field, toiling away in the desert heat in a bid to learn more.
But the group weren’t just adding to our knowledge of the geoglyphs that are known to exist. Led by professor Masato Sakai, the researchers began to uncover new designs on the Pampa Colorada. And over the course of nine years, they made a number of startling discoveries.
Using a combination of fieldwork, 3D data examination and other techniques, the team managed to identify more than 40 new geoglyphs in the years up to 2015. But that was just the start. When the results of the study were released in 2019, a total of 143 previously unknown designs had been found – thanks in part to the use of artificial intelligence.
Until 2018, the team had been using people to process the vast amounts of data collected from the region. Sakai and his colleagues knew, however, that this method was too time-consuming to be applied across a larger area, and so they joined forces with tech company IBM to come up with a solution.
After that, researchers fed data about the site into the IBM Watson Machine Learning Community Edition – an artificial intelligence device. And the results were encouraging. According to the technology, there seemed to be a number of potential geoglyphs that had not yet been discovered by the team.
Then in 2019 the group were able to return to Pampa Colorada and put the AI findings to the test. After identifying an area where a geoglyph supposedly lay, the researchers began work on the ground at the proposed location. And before long, they were able to confirm the impressive discovery.
Sure enough, the Yamagata University group uncovered a previously unknown geoglyph located exactly where IBM’s artificial intelligence had predicted. One of the few depictions of humans to appear among the Nazca Lines, this figure stretches for 16 feet across the desert. And according to experts, it was probably constructed during the Initial Nazca period, which spans from around 100 B.C. to 100 A.D.
In addition, the team have been able to identify two distinct types of geoglyphs on the Pampa Colorada. To create the so-called Type A designs, the artists look to have cleared away rocks from the desert floor to leave the impression of lines. And, typically, the patterns created in this manner tend to be larger than others – at least 165 feet wide.
To produce the Type B examples, meanwhile, rocks were seemingly also taken away to reveal the desert floor below. In these cases, though, the process produced complete blocks of color rather than individual strips. And according to specialists, the geoglyphs constructed using this method tend to be among the smaller examples at the site.
During their investigations, then, the team from Yamagata University found that the newly discovered depiction of a humanoid falls into the second camp. But why did the Nazca etch this figure into the desert thousands of years ago? And could this design also have formed part of an ancient ceremonial walkway?
Well, Sakai and his colleagues believe that there may be a more prosaic explanation for the geoglyph’s existence. Apparently, the shape was located near a route that the ancient Nazca once used to navigate across the desert. As such, it may once have served as a signpost designed to help those travelers keep on track.
This information was revealed on November 15, 2019, when the Yamagata University group released a statement regarding their discoveries on the Pampa Colorada. And along with details of the humanoid figure, which was located on the western side of the plain, the researchers explained more about the other 142 designs uncovered during their research.
According to the report, many of these new geoglyphs featured designs of animals such as monkeys, foxes, birds, snakes, fish and cats. A number of objects were also traced out in straight strokes and spirals etched upon the desert floor. And for anyone interested in the Nazca Lines, these findings are highly significant.
It was revealed, moreover, that the largest of these recently uncovered designs measured in excess of 330 feet in size – meaning it belongs to the Type A group of geoglyphs. The smallest, by contrast, was less than 16 feet wide and is therefore part of the Type B category. And, interestingly, experts believe that these two different methods of construction can be tied to specific periods in time.
Yes, as with the image of the human figure discovered by the team, most Type B geoglyphs are believed to date from the Initial Nazca era – or perhaps even earlier. The Type A designs are thought, conversely, to originate from a later epoch known as the Early Nazca, which spanned from 100 B.C. to 300 A.D.
And these differences in date and style are likely not the only things to set the groups of geoglyphs apart. Supposedly, you see, Type A designs were likely constructed as ritual locations in themselves. It’s thought that within these patterns, the Nazca gathered to partake in rituals that involved the breaking of pottery.
Indeed, current archaeological work appears to support the idea that such ceremonies took place within the Type A geoglyphs. But what was the purpose behind the Type B designs? Well, as these patterns are typically found near paths, they may have served as signposts for travelers – the same hypothesis made about the human figure discovered in 2019.
And following their success, the team at Yamagata University realized the potential of artificial intelligence in the study of the Nazca Lines. In September 2019, the experts therefore embarked on a two-year collaboration with IBM, and moving forward they will use AI technology to analyze further sets of data and identify where any undiscovered geoglyphs might be located.
With the help of AI, the researchers hope to learn more about the Nazca Lines – as well as the people who built them. In a 2019 interview with CNN, Sakai explained, “The new discoveries will provide us some clues for understanding the pattern of distribution of biomorphic geoglyphs in more detail.”
But the project isn’t just about rediscovering geoglyphs that have laid hidden for thousands of years. According to Sakai, at least, it also has an important role to play in the future preservation of the Nazca Lines. In a 2019 interview with The New York Times, the professor explained that the designs were “facing a crisis of destruction.”
Yes, after a series of incidents that resulted in damage to the ancient lines, there are real concerns about what may happen to the Pampa Colorada site. Sakai believes, however, that by uncovering these new designs, researchers can help secure a better future for all the geoglyphs there. “They should be cleaned up,” the academic explained. “If they become clearly visible, they will be protected as important cultural heritages.”
Ultimately, the Yamagata University team plan to use their studies to create a detailed map of all the geoglyphs located across the Pampa Colorada. With this, they hope to help preserve the site for future generations. And in the meantime, their work continues to shed much-needed light on the mysterious Nazca Lines, illuminating the actions of the people who lived in this part of Peru thousands of years ago.
Yet while there are credible theories as to the Nazca Lines’ true purpose, we can’t be completely sure why the ancient people responsible for these breathtaking designs created them in the first place. Fortunately, another group of specialists have uncovered a clue that may yet point the way to determining the answer for good.
Japanese researchers are minutely scrutinizing photographs of an iconic World Heritage Site, the Nazca Lines in Peru. These massive land drawings have intrigued and puzzled experts for decades. But these scientists are on the brink of a startling reinterpretation of some of them. And their findings upset existing theories about the purpose of the vast symbols.
The Nazca Lines are set on a desert plateau in southern Peru, some 250 miles from the country’s capital, Lima. The plateau extends for around 50 miles between the towns of Palpa and Nazca. And the most famous of the Nazca images appear in an area measuring about six by two miles, near the village of San Miguel de la Pascana.
These lines are actually called geoglyphs. A geoglyph is a large image drawn into the land by moving surface stones to create an outline. In the case of the Nazca Lines, the red-hued pebbles that form the surface layer of the desert have been scraped aside to reveal the lighter colored clay that lies beneath.
Many of the Nazca geoglyphs are simply lines or shapes which run across the desert surface. And the best-known are actually figurative images representing various animals and plants. Indeed, they include drawings of some 70 different creatures, such as a monkey, a spider and a jaguar. There is also a variety of different birds.
The Japanese researchers focused on 16 bird images found among a total of 2,000 geoglyphs. Significantly, the scientists examined the drawings with a fresh perspective. Indeed, they looked at them through the eyes of an ornithologist, an avian expert. And this approach came up with some fascinating conclusions, which we’ll detail a little later.
For now, though, let’s look in greater depth at these amazing geoglyphs, created by the ancient Nazca people. A pre-Incan civilization, they lasted from around 2,000 to 1,200 years ago and lived near Peru’s Pacific coast, in the network of valleys associated with the Rio Grande de Nazca.
As well as the geoglyphs, the Nazca culture also produced a range of artifacts, such as multicolored pottery objects and elaborate textiles. The sophistication of their crafts even included the ability to glaze their ceramics with up to 15 different colors. Indeed, among the amazing Nazcan finds are pots with twin spouts and exquisite lobster effigies.
Nazca textiles were woven from wool and cotton and included clothing such as tunics, shawls and dresses. They decorated these fabrics with images of fish, two-headed snakes and birds. And some garments, presumably worn by high-status individuals, included elaborate embroidery and feathers. The culture also ritually buried their dead wrapped in shrouds.
Early Nazca society consisted of a variety of different chiefdoms with an important cultural center at a site called Cahuachi. A place for ritual and ceremony, this location has been extensively excavated, and consists of earthworks and open squares. Experts theorize that the Nazca used this particular location for ceremonies connected to farming, fertility and water.
As the era of the Nazca rolled on, Cahuachi was abandoned, perhaps due to drought. Their society continued – but without those ritual sites. Religion, though, seems to have played an important part in cultural life, with gods represented in art by mythical beasts. These were likely also associated with fertility and agriculture.
In an environment where drought was all too common, it’s hardly a surprise that the Nazca apparently focused their beliefs on supernatural forces effecting water and fertility. Shamans or priests led religious life and may well have made use of hallucinogenic narcotics extracted from cacti. The resulting drugs probably helped them experience visions.
A rather more gruesome feature of Nazca culture, however, has long puzzled researchers. Portrayals of human beheading frequently appear in both the textiles and ceramics of the period. Indeed, many burials unearthed skeletons separated from their skulls. Whether these decapitations were to provide warriors with trophies or were part of ceremonial rites, though, is open to question.
Indeed, one German archaeologist, Max Uhle, came up with the term “trophy head” in the early 20th century. And, it seems that these skulls all have one identifying feature – holes drilled into the forehead. Why? Well, a rope could then be threaded through the opening, allowing the skulls to, perhaps, be carried like talismans.
And archaeologists also discovered graves in the area which are termed partial burials. That simply means that the tomb contains incomplete skeletons. Such locations include piles of skulls and an assortment of limbs. And some even have a skeleton with the skull missing, replaced with a “head jar.”
A head jar is a ceramic pot decorated with human features. The pots sometimes also have representations of trees and other greenery growing from them. The precise meaning of these macabre artifacts, however, eludes researchers to this day. It’s even thought that decapitating humans may have increased the status of important Nazca chiefs.
Indeed, the Nazca seem to have had a thing about human heads. Intriguingly, researchers also discovered strangely misshapen skulls among excavated remains. The craniums were elongated during life, presumably for some ritualistic purpose. And they achieved this distortion by changing the shape of the head during childhood with the use of boards. What purpose this served, however, remains a mystery.
Then there was the practice of trephination. This is the process of drilling a hole through the skull of a live human. And it may have been done as a medical procedure to relieve pressure on the skull, possibly caused by wounds sustained in battle. On the other hand, the technique may have formed part of a ritual ceremony. We do know, though, that some survived the ordeal as some wounds show indications of healing around them.
When it came to Nazcan livelihoods, they existed by subsistence farming. Judging by the images on their ceramics, they grew crops such as sweet potato, squash, maize and manioc. In addition, they farmed cotton for textiles and San Pedro cactus for narcotics. Meat, on the other hand, came from llamas.
Archaeologists have also discovered evidence of a sophisticated aqueduct system built by the Nazca. These subterranean channels, or puquios, fed underground water out to an irrigation network or even to storage tanks. In fact, some of those same water courses are still in use today, albeit with the addition of powered pumps.
We’ve already seen that the Nazca were highly skilled in arts and crafts, notably in the production of sophisticated ceramics and textiles. But undoubtedly they are best known for the huge geoglyphs that they etched across the surface of the Nazca Desert. In fact, they were given United Nations World Heritage Site status in 1994.
The Nazca made the lines by scraping away around six inches of the desert’s surface stones which have a red-brown, rusty color caused by a layer of iron oxide. Beneath the pebbles is clay of a lighter shade, which shows up as a pale line with a yellowish color. Incredibly, the geoglyphs depicting flora and fauna vary in size from about 1,000 to 3,700 feet across.
Luckily, the prevailing climatic conditions of the Nazca Desert created an almost perfect environment for the geoglyphs. On average, rain falls there for just 20 minutes each year. In addition, there’s also very little wind to erode the lines. Thanks to this particular micro climate, then, the images have remained extraordinarily well preserved over the centuries.
In fact, the first written report we have of the lines dates back to 1553. Indeed, Pedro Cieza de León, a Spanish conquistador, mentioned them in his account of traveling in South America, Crónicas del Perú. De León, though, thought he had merely stumbled across a collection of waypoints. The first modern archaeologist to note the geoglyphs was a Peruvian, Toribio Mejía Xesspe, over three centuries later, in 1927.
Xesspe spotted the lines from nearby foothills, but it wasn’t until the 1930s, when planes started to cross the Nazca desert, that the full extent of these unique geoglyphs was recognized. Indeed, to get the full impact of the images, seeing them from above is necessary. And commercial flights across the region revealed them in all their splendor.
It was in 1940 that American historian, Paul Kosok of Long Island University, made the first intensive study of the geoglyphs. He had actually traveled to Nazca to study the aqueduct system there. But flying across the lines, he spotted that one of the patterns below him was actually shaped like a bird.
Later, and purely by chance, Kosok was at the end of one of the Nazca Lines around 24 hours after South America’s Winter Solstice. He noticed that the line he was on aligned perfectly with the sunset that day. This led him to theorize on the purpose of the lines. Indeed, a National Geographic magazine article later quoted the historian’s thoughts.
Kosok believed the geoglyphs, spread out over some 310 square miles, make up “the largest astronomy book in the world.” The historian was then joined in his research by German mathematician Maria Reiche and Richard P. Schaedel, an American archaeologist. Together, the three of them developed the idea that the lines were associated with the stars.
Reiche seems to have fallen entirely under the spell of these enigmatic geoglyphs. She spent some 40 years studying them, even winning a grant from National Geographic magazine to support her work. What’s more, she moved to a house near the images so that she could protect the priceless artifacts from any possibility of damage.
Other, perhaps, more eccentric, minds have also turned their attention to deciphering the meaning of the lines. One such psyche was Eric von Däniken. In his best-selling 1969 book, Chariots of the Gods?, he claimed that the geoglyphs were the work of extraterrestrials. According to author, aliens had actually laid down landing strips for spacecraft.
Serious scientists gave van Däniken’s theory short shrift. The success of his book, though, created a boost in tourism to the area. This, in turn, created the very situation that Reiche wanted to protect the site from. However, like the author, she, too, looked to the heavens for an explanation of the lines, theorizing that at least some of them represented constellations.
As the 20th century went on, there was no shortage of experts proposing theories about the purpose of the geoglyphs. In 1977, for example, Alberto Rossell Castro suggested some lines connected mounds, while others were associated with irrigation, and yet more had astronomical significance. A less likely theory of his was that the images were outlines for enormous weaving looms.
Other researchers believed the lines had religious significance and somehow connected to the patterns on Nazca textiles and ceramics. Another common interpretation was that the lines had something to do with the culture’s irrigation system. Meanwhile, some experts cast doubt on the astronomical explanation favored by Kosok and Reiche. The debate raged on.
But the truth is we aren’t really any closer to understanding what the Nazca were up to in creating these elaborate motifs. And that brings us back to the latest team of experts to turn their minds to this complex conundrum. And they’re the Japanese researchers we met earlier.
Three scientists, Yamashina Institute for Ornithology’s Takeshi Yamasaki, Hokkaido University Museum’s Masaki Eda and Yamagata University’s Masato Sakai concentrated their minds on the 16 geoglyphs that represent various types of birds. Eda later explained the thinking behind their approach in a press release issued by Hokkaido University in June 2019.
“Until now, the birds in these drawings have been identified based on general impressions or a few morphological traits present in each figure,” Eda said. “We closely noted the shapes and relative sizes of the birds’ beaks, heads, necks, bodies, wings, tails and feet and compared them with those of modern birds in Peru.”
And in closely examining the bird geoglyphs, the researchers have overturned some assumptions about them. Indeed, one of the most famous of the Nazca images is the hummingbird. But Eda and his team believe this is actually a representation of long-tailed hermit, which today lives in northern Peru, far from the Nazca desert.
And the Japanese team also identified the species of another two avian geoglyphs. One image, which researchers had formerly identified as an infant duck, is actually a baby parrot, according to the researchers. These parrots live in tropical jungles, and, again, their habitat is a long way from Nazca.
And then there’s the image scientists believed to be a guano bird, until the work of the Japanese experts. Indeed, there are three types of bird that live on Peru’s coast classified under the umbrella name guano bird. Eda and his colleagues now believe that the geoglyph is specifically of a pelican.
However, none of these three bird species live in the Nazca region. So why do they appear in the geoglyph collection? Speaking to Newsweek, Eda said, “If exotic/non-local birds were not significant for the Nazca people, there are no reasons to draw their geoglyph. So, their existence should be closely related to the purpose of etching geoglyphs. But the reason is difficult to answer.”
Eda and his colleagues have certainly enhanced our knowledge of these enigmatic geoglyphs in the Nazca Desert. But there’s still a long way to go before we can come up with definitive answers as to the purpose of these striking images. Perhaps we’ll never find the key to unlock this intriguing puzzle. But we can always continue to marvel at these ancient artifacts.