A newfound geoglyph (image © Luis Jaime Castillo)

The Nazca Desert in Peru is famous for the ancient geoglyphs known as the Nazca lines, which form enigmatic geometric shapes and zoomorphic designs. Now, in a major breakthrough, archaeologists have found many more examples of large-scale linear designs in the adjacent province of Palpa, as National Geographic first reported. Using drones, researchers have identified over 50 massive, long-unseen geogylphs that date from between 500 BCE to 200 CE — centuries before the time of the known Nazca lines.

Unlike the Nazca lines, these depict mostly humans — warriors, specifically, according to Peruvian archaeologist Luis Jaime Castillo Butters, who co-led the survey. While some were made by the Nazca culture, which dates from between 200 and 700 CE, the archaeologists believe that many were drawn by the earlier Paracas and Topará cultures.

“This means that it is a tradition of over a thousand years that precedes the famous geoglyphs of the Nazca culture, which opens the door to new hypotheses about its function and meaning,” Johny Isla, the Nazca lines’s chief restorer and protector, told National Geographic.

The aerial study of the area was triggered by an unfortunate incident. In 2014, Greenpeace activists damaged one of the Nazca lines while unfurling a giant message over the ancient markings. The lines are designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and to aid in their restoration, the United States gave Peru a grant to hire a local team. (In another incident, in February, a truck driver left “deep scars” when he drove through the area.)

Led by Castillo Butters and Isla, the team relied on data provided by satellite imagery database GlobalXplorer to better understand the site. GlobalXplorer was created by “space archaeologist” Sarah Parcak and trains citizen archaeologists to flag potential archaeological sites or looted areas. Castillo Butters visited the flagged sites in Nazca and Palpa last December, and also photographed them from above with drones.

These high-resolution images revealed unexpected details: hints of dozens of ancient geoglyphs. They are thinly drawn, and erosion has left them too faint to be seen on satellite imagery. But, centuries ago, humans would have seen them easily. The newly identified geoglyphs are on hillsides and would have been visible to villages below — unlike the Nazca lines, which are best seen from high in the sky.

While the newfound geoglyphs fall within the UNESCO World Heritage Site, they have yet to be registered with the Peruvian Ministry of Culture. Isla told National Geographic that the lines are not under immediate threat, although they could be at risk from the ongoing encroachment of illegal housing.

Claire Voon is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Singapore, she grew up near Washington, D.C. and is now based in Chicago. Her work has also appeared in New York Magazine, VICE,...