Scientists have offered a new take on the intriguing images of huge birds carved in the desert plains of southern Peru around 2,000 years ago.
In a joint effort, a team of experts applied an ornithological approach to identify the bird shapes in a study published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.
Masaki Eda of The Hokkaido University Museum, Takeshi Yamasaki of the Yamashina Institute for Ornithology, and Masato Sakai of Yamagata University in Japan have thus identified 16 bird geoglyphs among more than 2,000 carvings in the area.
“Until now, the birds in these drawings have been identified based on general impressions or a few morphological traits present in each figure.
“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,” said Masaki Eda.
The new take allowed the team to re-classify a previously identified hummingbird as a hermit bird; and a guano bird and a previously unidentified bird drawing as pelicans.
Although the identified birds can be found in Peru, their habitats extend to regions other than where the drawings were made, with hermits found chiefly in forests on the eastern slopes of the Andes, and pelicans inhabiting the coast.
“The Nasca people who drew the images could have seen pelicans while food-gathering on the coast. 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,” explained Eda.
Emboldened by the results, experts intend to compare these carved images with birds drawn around the same period on pottery and with bird remains excavated from Nasca ruins. Thus, the researchers hope to identify more of the birds depicted in the geoglyphs in a significant step towards revealing their significance and what motivated the ancient peoples to carve them to begin with.
The lines and geoglyphs of Nasca and Palpa are located some 400 kilometres south of Lima, Peru and form a World Heritage Site covering an area of about 450 square kilometres. The carvings by pre-Inca people include lines, geometric designs, and animal and plant drawings, are so large that they are best seen in aerial photographs.