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Ancient Orca Geoglyph Rediscovered in Peru

Found on a hillside in the Palpa desert, the 200-foot image was likely made by peoples of the Paracas and Nazca cultures

(Johny Isla Cuadrado, Peruvian Ministry of Culture/German Archaeological Institute)
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Four years ago, archaeologist Johny Isla, head of the Ministry of Culture in Peru’s Ica province, happed across an image of a whale-like creature etched into the hillside somewhere in the Palpa desert. As Tom Metcalfe reports for LiveScience, it turned out to be a previously unidentified orca geoglyph, which are large images that ancient civilizations carved into the ground. 

Isla, who helped discover around 1,000 geogplyphs in the region during the 1990s, ​found the image in a catalog put together by German archaeologists from surveys completed in the 1960s. But he had never seen the image of the orca, and the book only provided spotty details about the etching and its location. So in 2015, Isla set out to document the ancient whale using a combination of Google Earth and searching on foot.

“It was not easy to find it, because the [location and description] data were not correct, and I almost lost hope,” he tells Metcalfe. “However, I expanded the search area and finally found it a few months later.”

Now, Isla and a team of specialists have cleaned, restored and analyzed the impressive image. As Kastalia Medrano at Newsweek reports, the glyph is 200 feet long and is a stylized depiction of an orca. It also includes symbols that might indicate the picture had religious significance. Dating of the soil near the glyph indicates it was likely created around 200 B.C.

Parts of the image were made using negative relief, in which the image is scraped into the ground. This is a style used by the Nazca culture, which created the world famous Nazca Lines images in the neighboring province. Other parts of the image, however, were created using positive relief, in which stones are stacked on top of one another. This suggests that it may have originally been created by the older Paracas culture.

As Metcalfe reports, the Paracas lived in the region from around 800 B.C. to 200 B.C. The Nascas emerged around 100 B.C. and eventually outlasted the Paracas. “Perhaps it is the oldest geoglyph of the Nasca era,” Markus Reindel, archaeologist at the Commission for Archaeology of Non-European Cultures and head of the Nasca-Palpa project, tells the German newspaper Welt.

According to the Bradshaw Foundation, the fact that the whale is located on a hillside also points to the involvement of the Paracas. It’s believed that the culture would create the glyphs on hillsides facing valleys below, creating a sacred area.

As Isla tells Metcalfe, to the untrained eye the glyphs are difficult to pick out from the landscape, which is why even the locals didn’t realize the massive form of a creature carved into the hillside. “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,” he says. “However, [for] the eyes of a person without these advantages, it was a bit difficult.”

Peru is hoping to allow visitors into the area to view the orca, but access is currently restricted by Peruvian "land traffickers," reports Metcalfe. According to the Bradshaw Foundation these traffickers have claimed to purchase regions of the Palpa site that they considered to be uncultivated land, despite it's ownership by the Peruvian State.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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