The extraordinary lines and animal motifs populating the Nasca plateau in Peru are world-famous. Just to the north, though, a wealth of rather different images can be found in the environs of the modern city of Palpa. These compositions usually feature human figures or creatures, and are generally believed to be the handiwork of the Paracas culture, which lasted from c.800 BC to AD 1. If so, the Palpa figures were probably created before their celebrated neighbours, which are attributed to the Nasca culture, lasting from c.1 to 650 AD. The presence of these two distinct geoglyph styles provides an opportunity to compare and contrast creation techniques and image styles.
Between November 2017 and April 2018, we conducted extensive aerial surveys of the mountain slopes around the city of Palpa, to locate and document geoglyphs. This work was conducted in collaboration with the Ministry of Culture, in order to identify archaeological features and thus help to protect them. Our survey was partially funded by the National Geographic Society as a component of the GlobalXplorer’s programme, which aims to test findings by amateur archaeologists. As well as examining such sites, our surveys successfully discovered several new examples of Palpa figures.
Finding the Palpa figures
Fieldwork was conducted by a team of Peruvian archaeologists led by Luis Jaime Castillo, from the Catholic University in Lima, and by Johny Isla, from the Peruvian Ministry of Culture, and included Fabrizio Serván and Karla Patroni from the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru (PUCP). Examining this vast region of low mesas – flat-topped and steep-sided hills – and mountain slopes required subjecting it to systematic aerial survey for the first time. Drones were flown at low altitudes and took thousands of photos that were then processed through photogrammetry software. This approach created highly detailed and accurate 3D models and 2D orthophotos – that is, images presented at a uniform scale – of the slopes, which faithfully capture even the slightest crease in the surface. Just like the neighbouring Nasca region, Palpa’s climate is extremely arid. Indeed, it receives almost no rain, so modifications to the surface can remain visible for millennia. The creation of both the Palpa figures and the seemingly later Nasca lines relied on a common technique, which involved removing the dark-coloured stones that carpet the ground, to expose lighter soil underneath. Fortunately, altering the surface in this manner means that the handiwork of the people creating the Palpa figures can still be detected using both 2D images and 3D models.
Surveys and aerial documentation were conducted using small, fully automated drones flying at altitudes of 20m to 50m. Drones ranged over extensive areas of 100 to 884ha, tasked with capturing a tight grid of photographs. Their flightpath was preset using autopilot software that controlled altitude, speed, camera position, photograph overlap, and so on. Such coverage is in stark contrast to previous drone sorties targeting geoglyphs in this region, which mostly served to verify previously located figures or achieve a detailed visual record of a single composition. Previous projects by Markus Reindel and Johny Isla, from the German Archaeological Institute, and Masato Sakai, from the University of Yamagata, have located and documented figures with drones, but rather than just seeking out known or suspected Palpa imagery, our project harnessed the capability of drones to survey sizeable tranches of the landscape, presenting an opportunity to examine areas even when we had no prior indication that figures were present within them. Consequently, most of the figures detected during our work were identified in the lab, while the photos were being processed and studied, rather than on site. In this regard, the project was really a proof-of-concept aimed at demonstrating that extensive drone survey can serve as an effective means to prospect for previously unsuspected archaeological features.
A massive advantage with amassing so much information is that it allows us to recognise distributional patterns, with the Paracas people clearly favouring certain kinds of setting and particular stone and soil colours when crafting their figures. Establishing this made the task of identifying further figures a bit easier: most of the Palpa figures occupy specific locations in the landscape, notably slopes and the sides of mesas. Naturally, these are also areas where, because of the steepness of the terrain and the remoteness of the location, there has been very little circulation of animals and people, thus contributing to their preservation. Usually, the ground surface takes the form of an even mantle of dark oxidised stones, with a lighter underlying subsoil. Of course, imagery executed on such a surface by the simple method of moving the stones could easily be erased by rainwater draining off the flat-topped mesas. Fortunately, there is so little rain in this hyper-arid environment – certainly not enough to create flowing water – that even though millennia have passed since the figures were created, very little water erosion is visible. Instead, the greatest enemies of this imagery have been the wind – which can blow fiercely, stripping away the soil and exposing a darker layer of underlying stones – and, inevitably, human encroachment.
Palpa figures vs Nasca lines
So, how do the Palpa geoglyphs compare to their famous Nasca neighbours? In contrast to the Nasca lines, which consist mostly of geometric figures, lines, circles, trapezoids, spirals, and remarkable animal silhouettes etched into the earth using a continuous line, the Palpa figures mostly consist of representations of human faces and bodies. They are not geometric, but curvilinear in form, tracing out faces, eyes, noses, and mouths, with crude bodies composed of rectangles, while curved lines create arms and legs. Headdresses take the form of extruding lines, with hair represented by lines projecting upwards from the heads. Although both the Palpa figures and the Nasca lines rely on the same broad technique of contrasting dark stones with light soil, those creating the former were more likely to combine both removing material and building it up to produce their images. Another difference is that the Nasca lines representing animals are standalone designs, while the Palpa figures tend to congregate in groups, formed by numerous individuals lined up, or multiple heads displayed on the same slope, sometimes even superimposed on top of each other. Size also differs noticeably. Most Palpa figures range between 4m and 20m wide, but some representations of birds or felines are smaller, while a few figures of full-bodied humans achieve even greater lengths. By contrast, the Nasca lines tend to be enormous, with straight lines stretching up to 10km, while the famous Hummingbird figure is 90m long.
The most striking differences between Palpa and Nasca imagery concern the choice of subject matter. As is well known, the Nasca lines are mostly geometric designs that astound because of their exactitude when it comes to running straight lines over extraordinary distances or using linear designs to create surprising renderings of animals, such as hummingbirds, spiders, monkeys, whales, and so on. The Palpa figures, by contrast, represent mostly anthropomorphic beings, sometimes accompanied by small animals. In these designs, the focus is primarily on heads crowned with raised hair or ornate headdresses. Another difference concerns the uniform style and design of the Nasca lines, which is at odds with the air of experimentation exuded by the Palpa figures. There is far more variety in the way the Palpa imagery was created and presented, with the composition and concentration of geoglyphs differing. In particular, the way that human figures are represented is far less predictable. While a common style is always in evidence, the Palpa figures appear to be more free and independent creations.
Some of these differences hint at variations in the organisation and even need for communal labour to create the imagery in the first place. The Nasca lines had to be designed and planned, with great technical skill evident in the way these compositions were laid out on the flat plateau surface, while – in most cases – large numbers of individuals must have participated in the creation of a geoglyph. Because the Palpa figures are smaller in size and simpler to design, they could have been produced by a far smaller number of participants, perhaps even individuals.
Walk the line
It is well known that the intention(s) underpinning the Nasca lines remain an archaeological mystery. Scholarly consensus is elusive, but among the reasonable explanations, the leading one was formulated by Maria Reiche – following the ideas of Paul Kosok – who saw the lines as representations of a gigantic astronomical calendar. By this reading, the geoglyphs represent the position and movement of astronomical bodies, with complex orientations aligning with solar, lunar, and star positions and movements. Others, like Helaine Silverman, have interpreted some lines as connections linking settlements dispersed across the large Nasca plateau, which would be particularly useful if people were moving at night by the light of a full moon. David Johnson and others have proposed that some lines might relate to the presence of subterranean water or, in a wider context, with rituals associated with water and fertility. Anthony F Aveni emphasised that perceptions of the sky and celestial bodies might have been very different in the time of the Nasca, making their astronomical concepts (such as those described by Gary Urton) of crucial relevance to interpreting the relationship between lines, figures, and heavenly phenomena. Generally, though, archaeologists have come to the conclusion that the lines – especially those evoking animal forms – were produced as cosmological representations to establish a communication with the supernatural world. To put it another way, the lines and figures were designed to speak to the gods.
Unfortunately, none of these interpretations is an easy fit with the characteristics of the Palpa figures. In particular, since no alignments can be detected, orientations to specific heavenly or terrestrial features can be excluded. There is also no indication of an association with water, and rather than linking the natural and supernatural worlds, those creating the figures seem to be preoccupied with the human form and human relationships. Placing the Palpa figures on mountain slopes also makes them perfectly visible from valley bottoms, where most settlements were located. Rather than looking to the sky and speaking to gods, the Palpa figures faced existing communities, expressing an intention to communicate messages aimed at contemporary women and men.
The large number of Palpa figures speaks of something more mundane than a religious expression, perhaps analogous to some modern graffiti or tagging, where individuals express themselves with a signature mark, which at the same time establishes a connection between the person and the location. Space is marked to identify territorial boundaries, but competition to demonstrate ‘ownership’ of the same space can result in numerous superimposed marks, sometimes even erasing the earlier ones. These are all features that can be seen among the Palpa figures, which, as we have noted, are small enough to be produced by as few as one person over a short period of time. So, the imagery could be the manifestation of competition between groups, families, or even individuals. Alternatively, it could represent some kind of boundary ritual, which required certain spaces to be marked appropriately. Even then, not everything about these enigmatic figures makes perfect sense, while the sheer number of them makes it certain that they still hold secrets.
Seeking a date
Dating geoglyphs is far from an easy task, as it can only be accomplished when suitable material, either in the form of organic remains that can be radiocarbon dated, or ceramics that can be linked to stylistic sequences, are present. Several researchers working in the Nasca plateau have been able to establish correlations between lines and specific phases of the Nasca chronological sequence using associated pot fragments. These sherds are probably relics of rituals, either performed while the lines were being used in some way by Nasca communities, or as part of termination rites when activity finally ceased.
Based on the similarities between some Palpa figures and motifs found on datable textiles, it seems likely that they predate the Nasca lines, and correspond to the Paracas occupation of the region. This general impression is corroborated by the fact that several of the figures were partially overlain by Nasca lines and geometric designs. Despite these clues, an earlier origin cannot yet be confirmed by archaeometric dating, since we still need to find suitable evidence associated with the figures. We remain hopeful that an intensive ground survey could produce sufficient dating materials to address this crucial issue.
Until we have clarity on this point it would be unwise to suggest that there was no overlap between the traditions. One possibility is that rather than all of the Palpa imagery being older than the Nasca lines, the creation of figures could have started in the Paracas period and continued into at least the beginning of the Nasca era, expressing a very different message to the monumental lines.
Despite the extent of the low-altitude drone survey described here, in terms of the broader landscape it focused on a very small proportion of the hillsides and slopes around Palpa, mainly in the pampas de San Ignacio, and the hills of Yunama and Sacramento. There are still many areas that display the same sort of topographic configuration that we now know was favoured by the creators of the Palpa figures. Examination of satellite images has already revealed, in several locations on the northern section of the Palpa-Nasca plateau, the kind of surface anomalies that are commonly associated with these figures. In some exceptional cases, very large figures are even visible in these satellite images, despite their low resolution (compared to drone imagery). Plans are afoot to survey these areas with drones, which, as well as creating an invaluable record of as many figures as possible, will enable us to test the patterns of location and design apparent from our initial survey.
We also plan to employ thermal and multispectral cameras, as well as detailed LiDAR and drones with more precise geolocation, in order to increase the quality of the images, and thus the recognition and location of figures.
A second task will be to ground-truth all of our findings, something that is inevitably complicated by the fragility of the Palpa figures. Visits on foot must be kept to a minimum if the geoglyphs are to survive for a few more millennia, and in that regard tourists also present a risk (which is why this article does not include location maps). Fortunately, though, because the Palpa figures are located on slopes that are easily visible from valley bottoms or the surrounding area, there should be no need for people to clamber on the features themselves.
Once a complete survey has been accomplished, conservation or even restoration of the figures, as has occurred in Sacramento and the San Ignacio mountains ‘Familia Real’ complex, should be carefully considered. Restoration of a small number would allow people, both local and foreign, to enjoy these extraordinary geoglyphs. That said, there are already enough visible figures to make a visit worthwhile, but the restorers’ skill does not only lie in an ability to clean the features. It is possible to determine their edges with greater precision when aspects of the surface are considered that can only be perceived when specialists interact directly with the figures. In this regard, conservators, and a team of restorers that has been trained by one of the authors, could help bring a greater degree of clarity to our perception of these remarkable figures.
A huge amount has been written on the Nasca and Palpa geoglyphs. The publications listed here only provide a taste:
A Aveni (2000) Between the Lines: The Mystery of the Ground Drawings of Ancient Nasca, Peru. University of Texas Press, Austin.
J Isla and M Reindel (2006) ‘Evidencias de culturas tempranas en los valles de Palpa, Costa Sur del Perú’, Boletín de Arqueología PUCP 10, pp.237-283.
P Kosok (1965) Life, Land and Water in Ancient Peru. Long Island University Press, New York.
K Pavelka, J Šedina, and E Matoušková (2018) ‘High Resolution Drone Surveying of the Pista Geoglyph in Palpa, Peru’, Geosciences 8, pp.479.
M Reiche (1968) Mystery on the Desert. Heinrich Fink GmbH, Stuttgart.
ALL IMAGES: San José de Moro Archaeological Program Photo Archive, unless otherwise stated.