The famous Nazca Lines are intricate designs in the ground that cover an estimated 170 square miles in southern Peru. The large-scale etchings depicting people, animals and objects date to 2,000 years ago, when a pre-Inca civilization laid them in the Nazca Desert.

Many modern researchers have speculated about their meaning, but they still don’t know (and may never know) the reason they exist. And recent discoveries suggest there are still many more yet to discover.

In November 2019, researchers announced the detection of 143 new geoglyphs on southern Peru’s Nazca plain. The geoglyphs date from 100 B.C. to A.D. 300, and range in size from about 16 to 330 feet across (for comparison, the Statue of Liberty is 305 feet tall).

Yamagata University/IBM Japan
This geoglyph was discovered using IBM Watson Machine Learning Community Edition.

The drawings show cats, camels and other animals, as well as human figures wearing headdresses. One depicts a two-headed snake eating humans. Researchers from Yamagata University in Japan detected 142 of the 143 geoglyphs by performing fieldwork and analyzing high-resolution 3D data, and they detected the final glyph using artificial intelligence in partnership with IBM Japan.

The 143 geoglyphs add to the over 1,000 ancient designs already discovered in the Nazca (or “Nasca”) and Palpa regions of southern Peru. The Nazca Lines discovered so far consist of 800 straight lines, over 300 geometric designs and more than 70 animal and plant geoglyphs. In the nearby province of Palpa, there are about 50 geoglyphs of warriors and other figures carved into hillsides. Together, the Lines and Geoglyphs of Nasca and Palpa make up a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Yamagata researchers think ancient people created the 143 newly-discovered glyphs “by removing the black stones that cover the land, thereby exposing the white sand beneath,” explains the university in a press release. Researchers separated these glyphs into two groups: type A, which are larger, made of lines and likely date to the Early Nazca period (circa 100 to 300 A.C.); and type B, which are smaller, made of shapes and likely date to the Initial Nazca period (circa 100 B.C. to A.D. 100).

“Fieldwork identified type A figures to be ritual places shaped like animals, where people held ceremonies involving the destruction of pottery vessels,” the press release states. “Meanwhile, type B figures were produced beside paths or on sloping inclines and are thought to have been used as wayposts when traveling.”

The geoglyph that AI identified is one of the smaller, older glyphs that may have served as a marker to travelers. It seems to depict a humanoid figure wearing a headdress and holding a staff, sword or other tool. The figure measures about 16 feet across and is located near a path, suggesting it may have served as a travel marker. However, like all of the Nazca Lines, researchers can’t say for sure what this figure represents.

The November 2019 discovery was the first time researchers used AI to identify a geoglyph in the region. And in fact, the glyph was so faded that researchers may not have identified it without this technology. Using AI to process large amounts of aerial data more quickly could help identify more lines, geometric designs and geoglyphs in the future.

In addition, AI could also help efforts to preserve these designs, which take up large swaths of land and are easily damaged. In 2014, Greenpeace activists left footprints at the Nazca Lines’ hummingbird geoglyph when they placed a sign there. And in 2018, a truck plowed over some of the Nazca Lines