Peru’s famous Nazca Lines may include drawings of exotic birds

The pre-Inca people who crafted the enormous landscape art depicted winged fliers from far away

Nazca lines

DISTANT FLIGHT  An ancient figure stretching across southern Peru’s Nazca desert plateau depicts a bird known as a hermit, not a hummingbird as once thought, scientists report. Hermits, which are related to hummingbirds, live in rainforests far from the Nazca area.

M. Eda

Massive drawings of birds etched by pre-Inca people on southern Peru’s Nazca desert plateau include several exotic surprises, Japanese researchers say.

Three avian images depict species that live far outside the region where the famous drawings were created, zooarchaeologist Masaki Eda of Hokkaido University Museum and his colleagues conclude. A drawing previously classified as a hummingbird actually represents a related species known as a long-tailed hermit, Eda’s group reports online June 20 in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

These hermits (Phaethornis superciliosus) have long, pointed tails, as in the Nazca drawing, while the region’s hummingbirds have forked or fan-shaped tails. In Peru, hermits inhabit rainforests on the eastern slopes of the Andes and in northern regions near Ecuador. Two other Nazca bird drawings, both of which hadn’t been identified definitively until now, depict pelicans that live along Peru’s Pacific coast, the scientists say.

Another Nazca drawing previously classified as a baby duck instead portrays a newly hatched parrot, the scientists suspect. Parrotlike features include a short, thick bill and a bump on the forehead. Like hermits, most parrots in Peru inhabit rainforests.

Monkeys and spiders depicted at the site may also have lived in rainforests, the researchers say. It’s unclear why birds and other creatures from distant locales were portrayed at Nazca.

Species identities of another 12 Nazca birds eluded Eda’s team.

Nazca figures include more than 2,700 lines, geometric designs, plants, animals and possibly a labyrinth (SN: 1/12/13, p. 9). The drawings analyzed in the new study were created between around 2,400 and 1,300 years ago.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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