Almost 100 feet above the Peruvian desert, drones capture aerial footage of the ground below. And when archaeologists study the resulting images, they discover something that they weren’t expecting: traces of ancient geoglyphs carved into the rock many centuries ago. Now, experts have revealed a fascinating glimpse of these long-lost human creations.
First emerging around 100 B.C., the Nazca were a people who once flourished in the south of Peru. Native to the valleys of the Ica River and the Rio Grande de Nazca, they were known for their advanced artistic and technological skills. And even today, long after their culture has disappeared, they are remembered in the place names of their former homeland.
According to experts, the Nazca were an agricultural society that entertained strange practices such as cranial manipulation – a technique used to deform a young child’s skull. They were nonetheless also considered sophisticated for their time. In fact, they constructed an aqueduct system that is still utilized today.
Additionally, the Nazca forged beautiful pottery and wove complex, intricate textile patterns. But it was their fascinating geoglyphs that would ensure them a place in history for centuries to come. Even though their civilization had disappeared come 750 A.D., these incredible artworks still remained etched on the landscape for all to see.
Today, the floor of Peru’s Nazca Desert is crisscrossed with hundreds of markings known as the Nazca Lines. Covering almost 20 square miles, these designs were formed by carving shallow depressions into the ground. And while some take the form of seemingly endless lines stretching across the landscape, others are more awe-inspiring in nature.
Among the figures formed by the Nazca Lines are over 70 depictions of animals, including a hummingbird, a monkey, a dog, a lizard and a jaguar. Other patterns, meanwhile, are arranged to show various flowers and trees. However, these detailed images aren’t immediately visible to those who visit the Nazca Desert – for one deeply mysterious reason.
Bizarrely, the intricate designs of the Nazca Lines cannot be fully appreciated unless viewed from the air. And although some of the patterns can be seen from higher ground in the region, their nature has led many to speculate about whom they were created for. Did the ancient people of Peru master flight long before the Wright brothers took to the skies, or was something even stranger at play?
According to most experts, the Nazca Lines were likely constructed for religious or ceremonial reasons. Some believe that they were designed to be viewed by gods in the heavens, while others suspect that they were constructed to align with the stars above. Interestingly, this latter technique can be seen elsewhere, such as the ancient monument of Stonehenge in Southern England.
Others, meanwhile, have dismissed these more elaborate explanations, claiming instead that many of the patterns are simply ancient irrigation channels. But whatever the truth behind the Nazca Lines, there’s no doubt that their mysteries have captivated visitors to the Peruvian desert for generations.
In fact, some have even gone so far as to suggest that the Nazca Lines offer proof of alien life. And in the 1960s, some radical theories emerged alleging that the designs were actually landing strips created to guide extraterrestrial visitors to planet Earth. Unsurprisingly, however, no evidence has emerged to support such claims.
Today, the Nazca Lines remain a popular tourist attraction in Peru, drawing many thousands of visitors annually. The lines are also considered fragile, however, and as a result the location has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Unfortunately, though, this status hasn’t always been enough to ensure its protection.
In 2014 controversy gripped the region when a group of Greenpeace activists staged a protest close to the Nazca Lines. They unfurled a banner promoting renewable energy on the site – and allegedly caused damage to the geoglyphs at the same time. And while the charity claimed that its representatives had acted responsibly, others accused them of trespassing on a protected location.
With the eyes of the world again turned on the fragile Nazca Lines, it soon came to light that a considerable amount of damage had been caused to the site over the years. In fact, it appeared as if everyone from squatters to participants in the famous Dakar Rally had left their mark on the geoglyphs. Keen to prevent further destruction from occurring, the United States government subsequently stepped in to fund restoration work.
With the support of the U.S., the Peruvian authorities were able to hire Johny Isla, an archaeologist who has been studying the Nazca Lines since the 1990s. Together with the German Archaeological Institute’s Markus Reindel, Isla has spent decades attempting to document the fascinating geoglyphs of the Nazca Desert.
According to Isla’s colleague Luis Jaime Castillo Butters, archaeology in Peru is tough work. And out of some 100,000 locations of interest across the country, just 5,000 or so have been adequately studied on-site. Moreover, an even smaller number have been subjected to the sort of aerial observation that could reveal sights such as the Nazca Lines.
Then, in 2017 all this changed. That year, Isla and Castillo were successful in commencing a partnership with the GlobalXplorer initiative. Founded by University of Alabama at Birmingham archaeologist Sarah Parcak, the project saw her pick up a coveted prize from the team behind TED Talks in 2016.
With GlobalXplorer, Parcak aims to crowdsource archaeology. Through the project, trained volunteers are invited to become citizen scientists and try their hand at analyzing a collection of satellite images. Afterwards, they are instructed to flag up any signs of possible looting, as well as archaeological sites that might still be unknown to the wider world.
“I wish for us to discover the millions of unknown archaeological sites across the globe,” Parcak wrote on the TED website in 2016. “By building an online citizen science program and training a 21st century army of global explorers, we’ll find and protect the world’s hidden heritage, which contains clues to humankind’s collective resilience and creativity.”
With the TED prize victory under her belt, Parcak was finally able to launch her visionary approach. And in Isla and Castillo’s work, she found the perfect match. “When we were thinking about countries to go to… it had to be a country that everyone in the world would know is important, where the Ministry of Culture would be open to new technology, and where most of the sites would be out in the open and fairly easy to detect,” she told National Geographic in 2018. “Peru definitely fit the bill.
So with the location having been settled upon, GlobalXplorer’s first project launched. It asked volunteers to study satellite images of the Peruvian landscape. Amazingly, the project’s technology enabled these people to spot objects just a foot across that had been photographed from a distance of almost 400 miles. And when something of potential interest was identified, the experts were then sent in to take a closer look.
In December 2017 Castillo traveled to Nazca and the neighboring province of Palpa along with some students. And with support from both National Geographic and Peru’s Sustainable Preservation Initiative, they began carrying out what’s known as a “ground-truthing” mission – an attempt to verify the satellite findings from a closer perspective.
Upon their arrival in the region, however, initially Castillo and his team didn’t discover much in the way of new activity or hidden archaeological treasures. In fact, the looting locations that they were directed to turned out to be many years old. They also found damage caused by illicit mining activity in the area.
The team subsequently decided to bring in drones for a closer look – and that’s when things became interesting. Unlike the satellites used by GlobalXplorer, these airborne cameras are capable of spotting features on the ground that are under half an inch across. And with this more precise technology, something staggering was revealed.
Amazingly, the drone cameras returned images of more than 50 hitherto unseen geoglyphs stretching across the desert. And unlike the Nazca Lines, these designs had been etched into sloping ground, making the patterns visible to those living below. However, they had been worn away over the years until just the merest traces remained.
While some of the Palpa geoglyphs appear to have been previously noted, their faint nature meant that they were often perceived as little more than simple marks. Thanks to the work of high-resolution drones, though, the geoglyphs’ true nature has finally been revealed. And among them are some incredible designs that put even the Nazca Lines to shame.
Moreover, while some of the designs had previously remained very faint from an aerial perspective, many of them became startlingly clear in the drone images. For example, the new footage clearly shows the shape of a tupu, a type of clothing pin, carved into the desert floor. Elsewhere, the stylized image of a pelican can be seen, its lines covering an incredible distance of almost 500 feet.
Interestingly, one of the strangest designs appears to show a human figure attached to an ape. While some experts believe that the figure is that of a dancing female, others have described it as a person flying through the air. And bizarrely, some commenters on YouTube have taken this to be ancient evidence of extraterrestrial life.
In fact, many of the Palpa designs appear to depict humans – unlike the Nazca Lines, which largely show animals and geometric patterns. “Most of these figures are warriors,” Castillo told National Geographic. “These ones could be spotted from a certain distance, so people had seen them, but over time, they were completely erased.”
But who exactly was responsible for etching these incredible designs into the desert floor? According to experts, it was a culture even older than the one responsible for the Nazca Lines. In fact, they believe that these geoglyphs were created by the Nazca’s predecessors, the Topará and the Paracas, as early as 500 B.C.
First emerging around 800 B.C., the Paracas culture thrived in the Andes mountains of Peru until around 100 B.C. Like the Nazca after them, they are known to have developed advanced skills in the field of water management. Moreover, sophisticated ceramics and textiles have also been recovered from Paracas sites.
In the 1920s Julio Tello, a pioneering archaeologist from Peru, began excavating in a region known as the Paracas Peninsula. And from his discoveries, he was able to paint a picture of how these ancient people lived thousands of years ago. Interestingly, experts believe that they may have used geoglyphs like the famous Paracas Candelabra as a type of road sign, indicating the location of trading points.
Around half a century before the Paracas are thought to have disappeared from Southern Peru, a culture known as the Topará arrived in the region. And while little is known about these northern interlopers, it’s understood that both groups lived uneasily side by side for a number of years. Despite their differences, though, experts believe that the two societies had many common customs and skills.
According to some historians, the Nazca culture eventually developed from both the Paracas and the Topará peoples. In fact, it’s thought that some of the oldest Nazca Lines were actually created by these earlier groups. Most of the geoglyphs at Palpa, however, are understood to be centuries older than their more famous counterparts.
Furthermore, it’s claimed that a number of the patterns might have been created by a culture that existed prior the Paracas, although there’s no clear indication as to who that might have been. Experts have expressed excitement, meanwhile, over the age of the geoglyphs and what that might indicate for the future of archaeology in the region.
“This means that it is a tradition of over a thousand years that precedes the famous geoglyphs of the Nazca culture, which opens the door to new hypotheses about its function and meaning,” Isla told National Geographic. Identifying the lines was only the first step, though. Now, archaeologists must work to ensure that these discoveries are adequately safeguarded.
Thankfully, the Palpa geoglyphs are located within the UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s already established around the Nazca Lines. As previous incidents with rally drivers have shown, however, this doesn’t always guarantee protection. Furthermore, these latest discoveries still haven’t been registered with the Peruvian government.
While Castillo’s team works towards having the new geoglyphs officially recognized, GlobalXplorer volunteers are bringing even more data to the table. Since the Palpa discovery, in fact, they’ve identified a large number of other sites of interest. Archaeologists are currently busy following up on these leads.
“The data and information obtained with the GlobalXplorer project are extraordinary in quality and quantity, and above all in a relatively short period of time,” Isla explained, describing the initiative that led them to their discovery. “This puts us at the forefront in the registry of archaeological sites and geoglyphs in particular.”
Moving forwards, both Castillo and Parcak hope that GlobalXplorer will help protect locations such as Palpa from one of the biggest threats that they face: urbanization. Peru is apparently rife with unauthorized building projects, some of which infringe on the nation’s priceless archaeological heritage.
“We’re not fighting a looter with his shovel, running away when you’re blowing a whistle; we’re fighting an army of lawyers,” Castillo explained. “This is a constant battle, so the work we’re doing – documenting the sites, georeferencing – is the best protection we can give the sites.”