Mysterious Nazca lines in South America depicted exotic birds
Has the mystery of Peru's Nazca
Has the mystery of Peru's Nazca lines finally been solved? Scientists reveal the famous carvings identify seabirds and could have been used to in rainfall ceremonies
- Etched into the desert the mysterious artworks depict animals, plants, and lines
- Identifications of the specific animals drawn had relied on general impressions
- Experts compared the details of the avian figures with the features of real birds
- They found that the birds that they re-identified did not live in the Nazca region
- Better identifications may help experts work out why the figures were made
An enduring archaeological mystery may be a step closer to being solved.
Scientists studying the famous ‘Nazca lines’ have identified the birds shown in the giant markings, which could solve the mystery of why they were made.
Experts suggest they could be connected with ancient rituals appealing to the gods for rainfall.
The Nazca lines contain more than 2,700 geometric shapes, lines and images of plants and animals etched into the sand.
They were created between 1,300 and 2,400 years ago, well before the famous Inca site of Machu Picchu in Peru.
They are a feat of artistry, only properly visible from the air, which means their creators likely had no way of fully seeing what they had made.
Carved into a Peruvian desert, the giant figures have attracted various explanations for their purpose, but exactly what they depict had been left to vague impressions.
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An enduring archaeological mystery may be a step closer to being solved, as experts have pinned down the identities of some of the birds depicted in the Nazca Lines
In a bid to solve the mystery of what they show and why, researchers led by Hokkaido University exhaustively studied 16 images of birds.
They were able to correct the classification of one of the figures from a guano bird to pelican and reveal that a 'hummingbird' glyph is specifically a type of hermit.
Interestingly, the birds from the new identifications did not live in the Nazca desert, but instead came from further afield in Peru.
Each figure, the largest of which is 1,200 feet (370 metres) long, has been made typically from just one winding line carved into the desert face, which survive today thanks to the region's isolation and dry, windless climate.
To understand exactly why the Nazca people drew the figures, it is necessary first to understand exactly what each so-called geoglyph is intended to represent.
Masaki Eda of the Hokkaido University Museum in Sapporo, Japan and his colleagues compared the 16 avian-looking Nazca glyphs with real birds in order to try and better identify each one.
'Until now, the birds in these drawings have been identified based on general impressions or a few morphological traits present in each figure,' said Professor Eda.
'We closely noted the shapes and relative sizes of the birds' beaks, heads, necks, bodies, wings, tails and feet and compared them with those of modern birds in Peru.
Masaki Eda of the Hokkaido University Museum and his colleagues compared 16 avian-looking Nazca glyphs with real birds in order to try to better identify each one
Meanwhile, the analysis was able to re-classify another glyph — one previously identified as a generic hummingbird — as actually being a hermit, like the one pictured. These are a smaller group of birds within the hummingbird family distinguished by their long, pointed tail feathers
Of particular note is the fact that although the newly-identified birds do exist in Peru, they are found in different parts of the country from where the geoglyphs were carved into the landscape.
Hermits are a smaller group of birds within the hummingbird family, but in Peru they are distinguished by their long and pointed tails, which contrast to the forked or fan-shaped tails of other hummingbird subfamilies.
They can be found living in the forests that line the eastern slopes of the Andes, while pelicans live along the coasts near Ecuador, in the north.
'The Nazca people who drew the images could have seen pelicans while food-gathering on the coast,' Professor Eda said.
'Our findings show that they drew exotic birds, not local birds, and this could be a clue as to why they drew them in the first place,' he added.
'The Nazca people who drew the images could have seen pelicans while food-gathering on the coast,' Professor Eda said
There are other geoglyphs that have been suggested to represent such birds as condors and flamingos.
However, these figures did not have the essential characteristics required to support such identification.
At the same time, however, researchers found that these figures were also too inconsistent with modern-day Peruvian birds to justify proposing a new interpretation of their intended meaning.
More of the birds depicted in the geoglyphs might also be identified by comparing the giant works of art with both the birds illustrated on the local pottery of the time as well as avian remains that have been unearthed from the Nazca ruins.
The full findings of the study were published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.
So large they are best seen in aerial photographs or from overlying hills, the Nazca lines are figures of animals, plants and geometric shapes etched into the desert south of Lima by the Nazca culture between around 100 BC and 700 AD
WHAT ARE GEOGLYPHS?
Geoglyphs are works of art created by moving objects in the landscape.
They are generally longer than four metres and are made of durable objects in the landscape, such as stones, trees and gravel.
A positive geoglyph is formed by materials being laid on the ground while a negative geoglyph is formed by removing material.
Since the 1970s, many geoglyphs have been discovered in the Amazon rainforest.
They are often man-made ditches with strange square, circular or hexagonal shapes.
The most famous geoglyphs are the Nazca lines in Peru. The cultural significance of these features remains unclear.
They were first spotted in 1939 when a pilot flew over the Nazca planes of the Peruvian coastal highlands.
They were designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994 and the area stretches more than 50 miles (80km) between the towns of Nazca and Palpa, about 400 km south of Lima.
The most famous geoglyphs are the Nazca lines in Peru. The cultural significance of these features remains unclear
Some 700 geoglyphs are thought to have been drawn by the ancient Nazca people between the first and sixth centuries.
The Nazca Lines are drawn into lighter coloured strata which contrasts with darker gravels on the plain.
In general terms, the geoglyphs fall into two categories: the first group, of which about 70 have been identified, are said to represent natural objects, such as animals, birds and insects.
A second is made from lines and more basic shapes such as spirals, triangle and rectangles.
In the UK there are various equine and humanoid figures cut into chalk hillsides, including Uffington White Horse, Westbury White Horse and Lond Mana of Wilmington.