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A protest damaged ancient monuments in Peru. The repair effort led to the discovery of even more.

April 5 Email the author
A 2014 photo shows an aerial view of the condor geoglyph in the Nazca desert, in southern Peru. Scientists say they have discovered more of the ancient geoglyphs. (Rodrigo Abd/AP)

The environmental group Greenpeace caused outrage in 2014 with a protest stunt at the site of a large-scale ancient art in Peru that left marks in the desert that officials said would last hundreds of years.

But an unexpected upside appears to have come from the mishap: As the result, in part, of a grant given to the country in response, researchers say they have discovered more than 50 new examples of the strange desert ground etchings known as the Nazca Lines.

The Nazca Lines are large geoglyphs — designs scratched into the desert surface between 500 B.C. and 500 A.D. on a coastal plain south of Lima, which UNESCO calls one of the “greatest enigmas” of the archaeological world. They cover about 290 square miles and depict creatures, plants and imaginary beings, as well as lines and geometric designs.

Some of the new lines found belong to the Nazca culture, which dates to 200 to 700 A.D., while others are suspected to date back even further, to the Paracas and Topará cultures of 500 B.C. to 200 A.D., according to National Geographic, which first reported the story.

The Nazca geoglyphs, which are best viewed aerially, were created by moving stones to outline the wide lines and moving the top layer of soil to reveal lighter tones beneath. The Paracas glyphs, many of which depict humans, are on hillsides, and are visible to land below, according to National Geographic.

“Most of these figures are warriors,” Peruvian archaeologist Luis Jaime Castillo Butters, co-discoverer of the new geoglyphs, told National Geographic. “These ones could be spotted from a certain distance, so people had seen them, but over time, they were completely erased.”

[A truck driver inexplicably plowed over a 2,000-year-old site in Peru, damaging the designs]

The new discoveries were assisted by satellite and drone imaging.

“Space archaeologist” Sarah Parcak, a TED prize winner, helps research by crowdsourcing the analysis of detailed satellite images to volunteers willing to search the images for looting or archaeological sites. People were invited to look at satellite photos of Peru and flag potential sites or signs of looting, National Geographic reported. They found evidence on the ground of old looting sites from illegal gold mines.

And researchers photographing the sites with drones were able to pick up hints of the geoglyphs carved into the ground, National Geographic reported. The drones, flying at altitudes of 200 feet or less, could spot objects on the ground less than a half-inch wide, it said.

The newfound lines fall within the UNESCO World Heritage site, though they are not yet registered with the Peruvian Ministry of Culture.

In addition to the Greenpeace activists, the sites were damaged by a truck driver, who drove off a road and over some of the lines earlier this year to the great chagrin of local authorities.

But Castillo Butters said that the biggest threat to the sites comes from the encroachment of development and illegal housing through forged deeds, what he called “land trafficking.”

“We're not fighting a looter with his shovel, running away when you're blowing a whistle; we're fighting an army of lawyers,” he told National Geographic. “This is a constant battle, so the work we're doing — documenting the sites, geo-referencing — is the best protection we can give the sites.”

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