In the 1930s, pilots flying commercial planes over the Peruvian coastal plain noticed and brought attention to a strange pattern of lines etched into the ground. These were depictions of various plants, animals and shapes drawn with over 800 straight lines, some as long as 48 km. These included depictions of spiders, hummingbirds, cacti, monkeys, whales, llamas, ducks, flowers, trees, lizards and dogs.
These came to be known as the now famous Nazca Lines, which are geoglyphs—designs or motifs produced on the ground by moving or arranging objects on a landscape—that are over 2,000 years old, created somewhere between 500 BC and AD 500. These were made by creating shallow incisions or depressions in the desert floor by removing pebbles to leave different coloured dirt exposed. Despite continuous studies since their discovery, they remain one of the world’s greatest mysteries.
While always thought to be the largest ground paintings in the world, these figures have now been surpassed by a recent discovery.
In a paper published in Science Direct in June 2021, father-son duo and independent researchers from France, Carlo Oetheimer and Yohann Oetheimer, discuss how they identified eight sites around Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, in the Thar Desert that depict linear figures that resemble geoglyphs. They did so using Google Earth images, drone observations and field visits. In particular, a drone survey was conducted in 2016, which found that while some ditches were dug in the area for tree plantation, “ground paintings unrelated to the tree planting were also confirmed”.
The two researchers found a series of these linear figures in Boha, a small village located around 40 km from Jaisalmer. “Two remarkable geometrical figures: a giant spiral adjacent to an atypical serpent-shaped drawing, are connected with a cluster of sinuous lines. This triad extends over 20.8 ha and totals more than half of the 48 km of lines observed. Three memorial stones positioned at key points, give evidence that planimetric knowledge has been used to create this elaborate design,” the paper states.
The researchers say that these geoglyphs are the largest ones discovered worldwide, and the first of their kind in the Indian subcontinent. The largest figure was named Boha 1, and is a giant asymmetrical spiral made from a single line that loops and runs for around 12 kilometres. “The Boha 1 unit interpreted as a series of 12 eccentric ellipses, was revealed to be a huge spiral,” the paper reads.
Boha 2 is a serpentine figure, around 11 km long. “By analogy these curves replicate a boustrophedon. This term refers to primitive writings whose lines can be read from left to right and then from right to left, in the same way a plow travels in a field. The inflection points in the lines generate a gap of 4.7–14 m between them,” reads the paper.
Boha 3 and 4 included a series of meandering lines, and “two iconographic units, adjacent to the previous ones, draw about 80 serpentine lines between 40 and 200 m long. Boha 3 forms a cluster of lines oriented towards the NE, immediately at the apex of the giant spiral. Boha 4, on the other hand, is located about 50 meters away, SW of the boustrophedon. We experienced more difficulty achieving a precise mapping because many of these lines are heavily eroded. They have generally random sinuosities and adopt rhythmic undulations that look like braids in two areas”.
While these figures stretched for about 48 kilometres, the researchers suggested that the distance might have once been around 80 km. The authors say, “The giant spiral and serpentine figure are definitely the major points of interest, closely connected to Boha 3, suggesting that all the other geoglyphs were created as a framework for this set. Due to their spatial contiguity, [these] can be perceived as a sequential project. We still have to identify the semantic relationships binding them. However, we can interpret the construction stages of this triptych, guided by their layout and the principle of simplicity.”
The duo further explain, “Our observations suggest that a plow-type tool could have been used, possibly pulled by a camel on loose deposits, as commonly practiced by the Thar Desert farmers. This process, which does not exclude manual finishing, would explain the many inflection points in the lines. It should be noted that a small rock outcrop has been carved, indicating a concern to preserve the continuity of the line. These observations suggest that the creation of the Boha geoglyphs did not represent a considerable labor investment.”
Unlike in the case of the Nazca lines, where their creation was attributed to the ancient Nazca culture, it is unclear as to who might have drawn the figures at Thar. Moreover, these lines are reportedly only around 150 years old, and may be contemporary creations using Hindu memorial stones found in the region. “It is conceivable that they were built at the beginning of the British colonial period, in the middle of the 19th century. According to this hypothesis, the lines could be contemporary with the neighboring memorial stones,” the authors say. They further believe that these figures were made using planimetric, the study of plane areas, knowledge.
In terms of what these lines may suggest, the researchers say, “Only a bird’s-eye view 300 m above the ground would lead to the perception of the main complex as a whole. According to this assumption, how could the creators of these ambiguous signs ensure that they were properly seen and interpreted? The lack of visibility excludes the possibility of artistic expression, intended to be contemplated from the ground and invites us to consider religious, astronomical and/or cosmological meanings. Finally, because of their uniqueness, we can speculate that they could represent a commemoration of an exceptional celestial event observed locally.”
Of its significance, they say, “…At this stage of the research, we remain convinced that these unique geoglyphs are closely connected to their geographical and cultural context, and possibly contain a universal message linked to the Sacred and the cosmos.”
They further said that the Government of India must act to protect these geoglyphs before they disappear due to human activity. “…Boha’s geoglyphs appear to be the largest human-abstract and organically arranged geoglyphs ever discovered,” they said while concluding their paper.
Edited by Yoshita Rao