Spread out over 200 square miles of the Peruvian desert lies a treasure of the ancient world: thousands of enormous “geoglyphs,” huge shapes made from rocks and earth. Most of these are lines—some continuing for miles—while others are geometric shapes and recognizable figures: a spider, a hummingbird, a cactus, a llama, a flower. Known as the Nazca lines, the geoglyphs have survived for many centuries thanks to the dry climate of Peru’s southern coast—long outlasting the civilization that made them.
The Nazca lines were rediscovered in the 1920s, as plane travel afforded a new perspective of the Peruvian desert. Today, new technologies, like AI and drones, help archaeologists uncover more geoglyphs and piece together clues about the people who built them. Feast your eyes on a few of the most striking of these wonders:
The Nazca (Nasca) were fishermen and farmers who lived in oases along the arid southern coast of Peru between 100 BCE and 800 CE. The images and lines they carved into their desert home, like this monkey, are truly huge in scale. A Nazca hummingbird is some 300 feet long, while a condor measures about 450 feet. Archaeologists have long theorized that the Nazca created the geoglyphs as a way to pray to their gods for water and fertility in a forbidding climate. The glyphs’ intended audience couldn’t have been humans, the logic went, because the huge images could only be viewed in full from the sky.
After the lines were rediscovered, studies focused on the giant images spread across the flatter plateaus. But more recently, archaeologists have identified a whole new type of glyph: one that’s not lying flat but instead sits slanted on the hillsides. These geoglyphs were partially covered over (and therefore harder to find) because their location makes them more vulnerable to erosion from wind and water.
It’s not only their position on hillsides that makes this newly rediscovered type of geoglyph unusual. These images are also drawn in a different style than the monkey and whale above. Were they drawn by the same people?
To answer that question, archaeologists have compared the style of imagery in the hillside drawings to textiles and ceramics from cultures that have historically lived in the area. They found similar elements in the work of the nearby Paracas culture, which means “sand falling like rain.” Like the hillside geoglyphs, Paracas textiles “show birds, cats and people that are easily comparable,” archaeologist Johnny Isla told EFE News Agency. The Paracas preceded the Nazca by several centuries, meaning these glyphs must be older than their larger, flatter counterparts.
This geoglyph shows a pampas cat, a now endangered species that was more common in the time of the Paracas and Nazca. Isla believes it was drawn on this hillside during the late Paracas era, between 500 BCE and 200 CE. Finding geoglyphs drawn by the Paracas is a big deal because it has given archaeologists insight into where the Nazca, and their geoglyph tradition, came from. Isla and other archaeologists have been able to link the two cultures together using DNA and traditional arts like weaving and ceramics uncovered from Paracas temple complexes and around Nazca geoglyphs. That data suggests that the Paracas actually became the Nazca, sometime around the year 100 CE.
In recent years, Isla and other archaeologists have used drones to find 50 new Paracas hillside geoglyphs in Palpa, which neighbors Nazca. Before the age of drones, archaeologists relied on planes (which flew too high to see small or eroded earthworks) or even just standing on ladders. Being able to use drones has “totally changed the research” Isla told NOVA, since they can fly at low altitude and provide many new angles of perspective.
Isla and another Peruvian archaeologist, Luis Jaime Castillo, believe the hillside drawings show that the Paracas used geoglyphs for an entirely different purpose than their Nazca descendants later would. “Placing these geoglyphs on the slopes means that, in contrast with the Nazca Lines, you can see them if you are standing in the valley below where life and agriculture is taking place,” Castillo told The Guardian. “If the Nazca Lines were made by humans for the gods, these figures were made by humans for humans.” Similarly, Isla believes the Paracas used their geoglyphs to mark territory or waypoints through the desert—the road signs of ancient Peru.