The huge carved figure of a monkey with a spirally curled tail; immense geometric images of a condor and a hummingbird; a gigantic spider: the Nazca lines in Peru (two thousand years old) have amazed and bewildered modern observers since they were seen from the air, for the first time, last century.
The Japanese researchers who found them combined the fieldwork with the most modern technological tools: satellite photography, three-dimensional scanning and, in one case, artificial intelligence.
According to the group of researchers at the University of Yamagata, the newly discovered engravings, or geoglyphs, represent human forms and a great variety of animals, including camelids (a group of mammals among which are llamas and alpacas), Cats, fish and snakes.
Last week, the university declared that the forms, some of which are believed to date from at least 100 BC, were identified mainly on the western side of the area, by field work (collection of pottery remains, stones and land) and high resolution scan analysis.
The larger figures measure more than 90 meters.
One of the geoglyphs was discovered as a result of the collaboration between the university’s research team and Watson, IBM’s artificial intelligence system.
When the university and IBM Japan analyzed the information collected with the Watson Machine Learning Community Edition program, they identified several candidates for “biomorphic” figures.
The university said the researchers chose one of those images and, after conducting field explorations in 2019, discovered a five-meter human figure that was standing, whose existence was unknown until then.
The Nazca lines cover an area of approximately 450 square kilometers and are believed to have been engraved on the earth between 500 BC and 500 AD.
The forms can be seen better from the air and it is impossible to distinguish many of them at ground level.
Unesco has declared the Nazca lines a World Heritage Site that testifies to “culture, tradition and religious and magical beliefs”, artistic and technical skills, and land use systems of pre-Columbian societies of South America.
Masato Sakai, professor of cultural anthropology and Andean archeology, who led the research team, spoke in a video about the discovery and stressed the importance of making these enigmatic strokes more visible to ensure their survival.
“The most important thing is not the discovery itself ,” Sakai said, adding that the lines “faced a crisis of destruction.”
“They must undergo a cleaning process,” he said. “If they become fully visible, they will be protected as an important cultural heritage,” he argued.
In 2014, Greenpeace activists left marks on the protected site after entering the area to mount a message that encourages the use of renewable energy.
And, almost two years ago, according to the Minister of Culture of Peru at that time, a person was arrested for damaging three lines of the geoglyphs with a truck that deliberately deviated from the Pan-American Highway, which crosses the archaeological site.
All of Nazca’s works were created by removing the darkest top layer of the earth to reveal the white sand below.
Recent discoveries are classified into two categories that have different sizes and purposes.
According to the university, the figurative group, which represents animal and anthropomorphic images, includes figures that generally cover less than 50 meters.
The other group, that of more abstract and geometric figures, includes much larger images. The largest of them is more than 100 meters long.
Part of the fascination with the Nazca lines comes from the mystery of its function.
In “Chariots of the Gods?”, A 1968 sales success, Swiss author Erich von Däniken suggested that the figures perhaps served as landing marks for aliens.
But archaeologists believe that some of the engravings had a role in astronomical rituals.
The team of the University of Yamagata assured that the geometric figures represented places where people celebrated ceremonies in which ceramic pieces were broken.
On the other hand, it is believed that the smaller, figurative images that were discovered in areas near roads or slopes were travel marks, “designed to be seen.”
The researchers plan to use another IBM system, called Pairs, to organize the information collected over the past ten years and do more field work to map the geoglyphs.
They also hope to solve the mysteries that still exist around the ancient and immense figures and forms.
“From a deeper and more detailed understanding of the place where the figures are located and the moment they were used, the researchers seek to get a clearer picture of the people who made and used these geoglyphs,” said the college.