It turns out that we have been misidentifying the subjects of several Nasca line drawings for many years, but thanks to a zooarchaeologist at the Hokkaido University Museum, we now know that the drawings depict exotic birds instead of local birds.
The mysterious drawings were painstakingly etched into the ground over 2,000 years ago by the Nasca people of Peru and can only be seen from the air, resulting in many people believing that they were meant as messages to the heavens or even aliens.
Yamagata University professor Masato Sakai, an expert on the Nasca lines, turned to Masaki Eda for his expertise, asking him to take a look at the lines to see if he could identify some of the unknown birds of the 16 total birds represented by the drawings. What he found is that some of the already identified birds were misidentified.
“Until now, the birds in these drawings have been identified based on general impressions or a few morphological traits present in each figure,” Eda said in a press release. 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. I believe that the motifs of the animal geoglyphs are closely related to the purpose [of] why they were etched.”
The study, published by the Journal of Archaeological Science explains the findings.
The lines and geoglyphs of Nasca are a series of drawings etched into the surface of the so-called Pampas of Southern Peru. Of these geoglyphs, there are 16 that depict birds. The bird geoglyphs mainly created during the Late Paracas and the Nasca Period (c. 2400 to 1300 years ago) and account for the largest number of geoglyphs in the Nasca pampas that depict plants and animals. Bird geoglyphs are identified using general impressions or a few notable morphological traits. However, little consideration has been given to whether bird geoglyphs contain traits similar to those of other taxa or if the traits depicted by each figure match the taxon to which they have been attributed.
Researchers who used an ornithological approach to study the Nasca lines believe they have been able to more accurately identify several of the birds depicted. Their findings may also indicate that the lines depict non-native birds. https://t.co/RftVWeLUCB via @LiveScience
— AIA (@archaeology_aia) June 20, 2019
Indeed, one geoglyph had been identified as a local desert hummingbird. But Eda found that the etching more closely resembles a hummingbird known as a hermit that is found in forests on the eastern slopes of the Andes.
Eda identified yet another geoglyph as a pelican, which lives on the coast. And another resembles a parrot, which lives in the rainforest.
In this study, we identified the Nasca bird geoglyphs from an ornithological perspective. In doing so, we revealed several discrepancies between their geoglyphic characteristics and those of the taxonomic groups to which they were attributed by previous research. In addition, we determined that some of the geoglyphs depicted a number of specific birds, including hermit, pelicans, and what is most likely an immature parrot. Each of these birds is regionally exotic. For instance, hermits and parrots are found in tropical rain forests whereas pelicans live in coastal areas. The reason exotic birds were depicted in the geoglyphs instead of indigenous birds is closely related to the purpose of the etching process. Further studies involving bird figures depicted on pottery and sacrificed bird remains would be useful when attempting to identify the geoglyphic birds further.
These finds make it clear to Eda that the Nasca people held a high regard for exotic birds and that provides a reason why they may have immortalized them with their etchings.
“The Nasca people who drew the images could have seen pelicans while food-gathering on the coast,” he 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.”
"Fresh look at mysterious Nasca lines in Peru." https://t.co/RHA6xN3V60 on @HokkaidoUni via @ArchaeoNewsNet – Using a taxonomic approach, scientists have re-identified the huge birds drawn on the desert plains of Peru as hermits or pelicans. pic.twitter.com/teUJnPuSio
— Rudi Hammenecker (@RudiHammenecker) June 21, 2019
There were not many #hummingbirds that began with K for my A-Z series, except this pretty little one – Koepcke's hermit, ermite de Koepcke, or ermitaño de Koepcke (Phaethornis koepckeae) is a species of hummingbird in the family Trochilidae. It is found only in Peru. #hummingbird pic.twitter.com/Tqgx4rbZe3
— Louise McNaught-Art (@louise_mcnaught) May 5, 2019
Eda elaborated on this point in a statement provided to Newsweek.
“If exotic/non local birds were not significant for the Nasca people, there are no reason to draw their geoglyph,” Eda said. “So, their existence should be closely related to the purpose of etching geoglyphs. But the reason is difficult to answer. Although there are some animals and plants geoglyphs in the Nazca Pampa, birds are dominant in those geoglyphs. It suggests birds were important for Nasca people.”
Still, the study concedes that more research is needed, especially in the effort to identify more of the birds.
“By comparing the birds in the geoglyphs with those drawn on pottery, modeled as vessels, and used in religious activities, we would be able to identify more of the birds depicted in the geoglyphs,” the team concluded. “Further, we may be able to detect clues in the other mysteries of the Nasca geoglyphs, such as the reason why birds outnumber other animals and plants, and why the geoglyphs were created.”
The Nasca lines are one of the most unexplained and extraordinary archaeological finds on our planet. It constantly makes us wonder why they were made, especially since humans did not have the power of flight to admire their work or even make sure it was done right. Again, some believe the geoglyphs were drawn to send messages to people from other worlds or drawn by people from other worlds as messages to us. Either way, this would be the most extreme instance of bird watching ever.
See a flyover of the pelican geoglyph and other figures in the National Geographic video below:
Featured Image: Wikimedia