Officials in Peru will use radar imagery from NASA to help protect the renowned Nazca lines, one of the world’s most enigmatic archaeological sites, where an increase in human activity has ignited concerns about potential damage.
The lines are giant drawings known as geoglyphs that depict images of plants, animals and mythical creatures. Spread out over dozens of miles of desert in southern Peru, they are believed to have been etched into the ground over several centuries starting in 700 B.C. and can only be fully viewed from an airplane.
In 2013 and 2015, an unmanned NASA aircraft outfitted with a Uavsar radar flew over the area taking hundreds of images of the ancient archaeological site.
NASA’s local partner says it will now start sharing the data with the Peruvian government to identify potential threats to the site, including details on areas that have been most affected by human activity.
“Thanks to these images we now have an X-ray of the Nazca plains that will help us to develop a conservation plan,” Juan Pablo Puente, Peru’s vice minister of culture said in a statement. He added the NASA images could also help archaeologists discover new geoglyphs.
The precision of the drawings, which include a hummingbird, a monkey and a spider, is breathtaking, particularly considering the people who built them had no means of observing the lines from above.
Archeologists have long debated whether the lines served as an observatory, a religious site, or even an irrigation system.
In recent years, damage to the ancient site has increased, Peruvian officials say. Some of the main threats are illegal mining projects and tourists who tread on the delicate lines, according to archeologists.
In 2014, Greenpeace activists snuck into the site and damaged it when they staged a publicity stunt by placing a large sign near the hummingbird image, provoking outrage in Peru.
Greenpeace was dragged to court over the incident and forced to pay a fine.
On Saturday, Peruvian newspaper El Comercio published a NASA radar image of the hummingbird, which appeared to show black spots near its beak.
El Comercio quoted a NASA scientist as saying the black spots indicate that stones and rocks have been removed from the area and were signs of “irreparable” damage.
Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.