Japanese Researchers Rediscover 143 Nazca Geoglyphs in Peru

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Yamagata University’s Institute of Nasca harnesses artificial intelligence to study the Nazca Lines

By America Meredith (Cherokee Nation)

Researchers at the Institute of Nasca at Yamagata University in Japan have identified 143 long forgotten geoglyphs among the Nazca Lines. These newly rediscovered geoglyphs date from 100 BCE and 300 CE. They feature lines, fish, birds, monkeys, snakes, and even human-like figures. The largest of these spans 197 feet in length.

  • Nazca geoglyphs
    Humanoid and animals
Computer-enhanced images of the rediscovered geoglyphs. Images courtesy of Yamagata University. Used with permission.

Nazca Geoglyphs

The Nazca Lines are located in southwestern Peru in the high, windless Nazca Desert, one of the driest places on the planet. The Nazca Plateau and nearby Palpa Plateau are riddled with hundreds of geoglyphs.

Nazca ceramic vessel

Unknown Nasca artist, Single-spout ceramic vessel, collection of the Museo Arqueológico Rafael Larco Herrera.
Photo: Velvet (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Sometimes called “gravel pictographs,” geoglyphs are largescale earth artworks on desert surfaces. Ancient artists created the figures and lines by removing top layers of rock to reveal a lighter subsoil. The top layer was darkened by “desert patina,” a reddish-brown or black coating of clay, iron, and manganese that forms over thousands of years. The sublayer of soil is rich in lime and light in color, so geoglyph outlines are light on a dark background.

Artists from Paracas culture (800 to 100 BCE) first carved geoglyphs into the Nazca Desert floor. They were followed by artists from the Nazca culture (100 BCE and 800 CE), who etched hundreds of straight lines and dozens of humanoid, zoomorphic, and curvilinear geoglyphs. The geoglyphs share the aesthetics and motifs found in Nazca ceramics and textiles.

The lines are thought to align with astronomical features or events, mountains, or waterways. The geoglyphs may have been sites for religious processions and other ceremonies. Many are so massive they can only be clearly seen from the heavens.

The Palpa and Nazca geoglyphs cover a region about 450 square kilometers large and date from 500 BCE to 500 CE. UNESCO declared the Nazca and Palpa Lines a World Heritage Site in 1994.

Institute of Nasca, Yamagata University

Nazca geoglyph

The humanoid geoglyph rediscovered by IBM’s Watson artificial intelligence. Image courtesy of Yamagata University. Used with permission.

These geoglyphs fascinated researchers from Yamagata University, so they founded the Institute of Nasca in 2012. In this recent study, scholars there analyzed aerial photographs and conducted fieldwork in Peru from 2016 to 2018, Their fieldwork included surface collections of potsherds and stone artifacts to study their designs.

From 2018 to 2019, the team partnered with IBM Japan to study the Nazca Lines using artificial intelligence. The researchers had identified 142 geoglyphs on their own, but IBM’s Watson AI-system identified an additional figure. Scanning satellite images of locations identified by researchers to likely contain geoglyphs, Watson discovered a humanoid figure wielding a staff.

The Institute of Nasca enables researchers from Japan, Peru, and other nations to collaborate using sophisticated, interdisciplinary approaches to studying the Nasca Lines and Nasca culture. The research team of Yamagata University faculty who made these discoveries includes professor Masato Sakai (cultural anthropology), honorary professor Isao Akojima (physical geography), honorary professor Yoichi Watanabe (cognitive psychology), and professor Kaoru Honda (information science).

“We have been studying where, what kind of geoglyphs, how many are found, and what kind of human activities were carried out there,” the institute’s website states. In addition to discovering new geoglyphs, the institute has also identified the species of animals portrayed in the monumental artworks. The institute also partners with the Peruvian national government to help conserve the vulnerable archaeological site for future generations.

  • Kunihiko Kiyozuka, “Institute of Nasca,” Yamagata University Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, link
  • “World Heritage List: Lines and Geoglyphs of Nasca and Palpa,” UNESCO, link
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