Archaeologists have rediscovered 143 more enormous drawings called geoglyphs etched on the rocky ground of Peru’s Nazca Desert, with one of the finds coming courtesy of a machine-learning algorithm. The new images emphasize how much ancient art lies on the 450 square kilometer (280 square mile) Nazca Desert and how much of it archaeologists still need to find and document. Masato Sakai, an archaeologist from Yamagata University in Japan, and his colleagues say mapping the Nazca Lines could yield clues about their purpose.
No, it’s not an alien
It’s almost poetic that the first Nazca geoglyph spotted by AI apparently depicts a human—or at least something that looks humanoid. The five-meter-long figure shows up very faintly in aerial photos; if you don’t know it’s there, you’d probably miss it. With a little digital image enhancement, though, the geoglyph is a solid figure in a tall headdress holding a stick. Two thousand years after the fact, archaeologists aren’t yet sure what the stick is for; it could be a weapon or something used in a ritual. For that matter, the figure could turn out to be a god or a spirit, rather than a person.
IBM’s Watson Machine Learning Community Edition learned what Nazca geoglyphs looked like by analyzing aerial photos of the ones archaeologists have already documented. Then Sakai and his colleagues handed the algorithm a massive set of high-resolution aerial photos of the desert floor. It searched for features—shapes, patterns of light and dark contrast, and others—that looked like those of the geoglyphs it had seen before. The algorithm pointed out several shapes that might be geoglyphs, and Sakai and his colleagues chose one—the person in the headdress—to investigate in person.