Gigantic 2,000-Year-Old Geoglyph of an Orca Is One of the Earliest in Peru

Archaeologists have rediscovered and restored a huge geoglyph of a killer whale, “hiding” in a desert hillside in the isolated Palpa region of southern Peru. Researchers noted that the specific geoglyph had been lost over five decades ago.

Gigantic Ancient Geoglyph of an Orca Rediscovered

After years of investigation, restoration work, and analysis, scientists have come to the conclusion that the gigantic geoglyph is an orca.

Researchers from the Commission for Archaeology of Non-European Cultures (KAAK) of the German Archaeological Institute collaborated on the project with other partners, suggest that the 230-foot-long (70 meters) figure of an orca is considered a dominant, semi-mythical creature in ancient Peruvian mythology and is more than two millennia old, a fact that makes it one of the oldest geoglyphs in the Palpa area.

“Perhaps it is the oldest geo-glyph of the Nazca era,” Markus Reindel, archaeologist from KAAK and head of the Nasca Palpa project, told the German newspaper Welt.

Johny Isla, an archaeologist and director of Peru’s Ministry of Culture in Ica province, which includes the Palpa and Nazca valleys, told Live Science that he saw a picture of the orca pattern for the first time back in 2013, during a research on geoglyphs at the German Archaeological Institute in Bonn.

“The photograph appeared in an archaeological catalog of geoglyphs printed in the 1970s, which was based on research carried out in Palpa and Nazca by German archaeologists in the 1960s,” Isla saidvia Live Science.  

And added, “But the location and size of the orca geoglyph were not well-described in the catalog. As a result, the glyph’s whereabouts in the desert hills of the Palpa Valley, about 250 miles south of Lima, were by then unknown to local people or to scientists.”

Soon after he returned to Peru, Isla looked for the orca geoglyph on Google Earth and then on foot.

“It was not easy to find it, because the [location and description] data were not correct, and I almost lost hope. However, I expanded the search area and finally found it a few months later in January 2015,” he says as Live Science reports.

The petroglyph before restoration began in 2015. Erosion had obscured the ancient orca geoglyph. (Image: Johny Isla)

Unique Orca Art

Next, Isla organized a team of six experts from Peru’s Ministry of Culture in order to clean and restore the orca geoglyph earlier in 2017, as the geoglyph was wearing away due to erosion and the passage of time.

“Being drawn on a slope, it is easier [for it] to suffer damage than [for] those figures that are in flat areas, such as those of the Nazca Pampa,” Isla says according to Live Science.

Parts of the image were created in negative relief, thus the areas of exposed ground are what form the actual lines, rather than raised piles of stones.

According to the experts this is a similar technique to older Nazca geoglyphs, from around 100 BC to 800 AD.

However, other portions showcase a positive relief design, which is more associated with Paracas, a separate and even older culture.

Additionally, soil analysis has indicated that the orca geoglyph dates from around 200 BC, which makes it one of the oldest geoglyphs in the region.

Isla adds that before the restoration, it would have been very difficult for the average person to see the orca:

“With the eyes of an archaeologist, and after having seen the photo in the catalog and later in Google Earth, it was not very difficult. However, [for] the eyes of a person without these advantages, it was a bit difficult.”

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Modern day drawing of an orca or killer whale (Public Domain)

The Paracas Culture and the Nazca Lines

Most information about the culture of the Paracas people comes from excavations at the large seaside Paracas site, south of Lima, and first investigated by the Peruvian archaeologist Julio Tello in the 1920’s.

They are thought to have developed as a cohesive group around 1200 BC, or even earlier. After 800 BC they occupied the valleys of Nazca and Palpa, where they developed their own organized society.

According to Isla, their society was theocratic (ruled by priests) and agricultural, while many locals expertized in the production of ceramics and textiles.

“The landscape of the region where the Nazca and Palpa geoglyphs are located basically corresponds to the coastal desert, north of the Atacama Desert, which is cut by small oasis valleys. People lived on the edge of the valleys and used the slopes and plateaus of the desert to make the geoglyphs,” Isla explains as Live Science reports.

They became famous worldwide for the peculiar but impressive Nazca lines that were rediscovered nearly a century ago in the desert of southern Peru.

Despite their purpose still being a mystery, many curious travelers from all over the planet visit Peru to see them every year.

Isla reassures that Peru’s Ministry of Culture is trying to secure access to the orca geoglyph and provide basic services for visitors to the area, but it’s not as easy as it might sound as public access to the geoglyph was currently restricted by the claims of “land traffickers.”

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