Two hundred feet (60 meters) above the Peruvian desert, a drone moves in a grid-like pattern. Its operator is mapping ancient Nazca ground drawings, some of which are estimated to be 2,500 years old, and searching for signs of looting. But among the thousands of well-known Nazca Lines known as geoglyphs, the drone's 3-D camera reveals something else: long, narrow lines just inches in diameter and more than 100 feet (30 meters) long.
These previously undiscovered geoglyphs were found in December 2017 near Lima, Peru, as a team of drone-armed researchers funded by the National Geographic Society came across dozens of ancient lines and figures carved into the desert — and only partially visible even by overhead high-resolution 3-D images. Many of the lines, some of which appeared to be figures of warriors, had been reduced to faint marks and depressions in the soil. Some of the lines were only a few inches across, too faded to be picked up by powerful space satellites and too sprawling to be recognized by people on the ground.
While some of the ground drawings were most likely made by the Nazca during rain-requesting rituals, others may be credited to the land's even earlier inhabitants. The Paracas and Topara cultures also made huge land drawings between 500 BCE and 200 CE. While the Nazca were known for line drawings, their predecessors most often drew human figures.
The newfound lines aren't necessarily in immediate danger of damage. They are within the bounds of the UNESCO World Heritage Site that was previously formed to protect Nazca-built lines. After the newly discovered lines are mapped, they are expected to be registered with the Peruvian Ministry of Culture.
Using drones to discover archeological sites that can't be readily seen by the human eye has the potential to protect historically significant finds from all manner of threats, including urban and rural creep, thieves, vehicles and even environmental advocates. Forged land deeds and illegal housing have already erased some of the country's ancient lines.