By Iliana Magra
A huge carving of a monkey with its tail twirled in a spiral; vast, geometric images of a condor and a hummingbird; an immense spider — the 2,000-year-old Nazca Lines in Peru have awed and mystified modern viewers since they were first seen from the air last century.
Now, 143 more images have been discovered, etched into a coastal desert plain about 250 miles southeast of Lima, the Peruvian capital. The Japanese researchers who found them combined on-the-ground work with the most modern of tools: satellite photography, three-dimensional imaging and, in one case, artificial intelligence.
The newly discovered carvings, or geoglyphs, depict human forms and a broad variety of animals, including camelids, a group of mammals that includes llamas and alpacas; cats; fish; and snakes, according to the research group from Yamagata University.
The shapes, some of which are believed to date from at least 100 B.C., were mainly identified in the western side of the area through fieldwork — picking through pottery remnants, stones and soil — and by analyzing high-resolution imagery, the university said in a statement last week. The largest are more than 300 feet long.
But one geoglyph was revealed as a result of a collaboration between the university research team and Watson, IBM’s artificial intelligence system.
When the university and IBM Japan analyzed data with software called Watson Machine Learning Community Edition, they identified various candidates for “biomorphic” shapes. The university said the researchers then chose one of them and, after conducting work on the ground in 2019, discovered a previously unknown, 16-foot figure of a human standing on two feet.
The Nazca Lines cover an area of about 173 square miles and are thought to have been scratched into the earth from 500 B.C. to A.D. 500. The shapes are best seen from the air, and many are impossible to discern from the ground.
UNESCO has designated the Nazca Lines a World Heritage site that bears witness to “the culture and magical-religious tradition and beliefs,” artistic and technical skills, and land use techniques of societies in pre-Columbian South America.
Masato Sakai, a professor of cultural anthropology and Andean archaeology who led the research team, said in a video about the discovery that the enigmatic drawings must become more visible to ensure their survival.
“The most important point is not the discovery itself,” Professor Sakai said, adding that the lines were “facing a crisis of destruction.”
“They should be cleaned up,” he said. “If they become clearly visible, they will be protected as important cultural heritages.”
In 2014, Greenpeace activists left marks on the protected site after they entered the area to place a sign promoting renewable energy. And nearly two years ago, a truck driver was arrested after he intentionally drove his tractor-railer off the Pan-American Highway, which runs through the archaeological site, and damaged three straight-line geoglyphs, Peru’s culture minister said at the time.
All of the Nazca works were created by removing the darker top layer of earth to reveal the white sand beneath.
The new findings are categorized into two types that differ in scale and purpose.
The representational group, depicting animals and anthropomorphic figures, includes figures that usually span less than 165 feet, according to the university. The other, more abstract and geometric group, includes much larger shapes. The longest one stretches more than 330 feet.
Part of the fascination with the Nazca Lines derives from the mystery of their function.
In his 1968 best seller, “Chariots of the Gods?,” Erich von Däniken, a Swiss author, suggested that they might have served as landing strips for aliens.
But archaeologists say they believe some of the etchings played a role in astronomical rituals. The Yamagata University team said that geometric shapes signified places where people held ceremonies that involved the breaking of ceramics, while the smaller, representational figures, which were found close to paths or slopes, are believed to have been travel markers, “designed to be looked at.”
The researchers plan to use another IBM system, called PAIRS, to organize data collected from the ground over the past 10 years and conduct more groundwork to create a map of the geoglyphs.
And they hope to solve the mysteries that remain about the ancient, sprawling figures and shapes.
“By gaining a detailed understanding on where the figures are located and when they were used,” the university said, “researchers aim to attain a closer look into the worldview of the people who made and used these geoglyphs.”
Makiko Inoue and Motoko Rich contributed reporting from Tokyo.