10 Greatest Ancient Geoglyphs in the World

Updated on May 3, 2018
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Archaeology is one of Kelley's great passions. He's read many books on the subject, as well as every issue of "Archaeology" since 1987.

Monkey effigy in the Nazca Desert
Monkey effigy in the Nazca Desert

For many years the ancient people of earth built geoglyphs, which invariably leave people wondering how they were made, when they were made and for what purpose. The main reason for this speculation is that none of these cultures left written records regarding these ancient earthworks; nonetheless, scientists have done a great job of revealing some of their secrets.

Bear in mind that all of the geoglyphs on this list were built at least hundreds, if not thousands of years ago, and certainly not by contemporary folks using modern machinery or techniques. Also, some of these geoglyphs have been restored to a certain extent, for better or worse, which may enhance their esthetic attributes, though perhaps damage their archaeological value.

Please check out this list of what could be the world’s most impressive ancient geoglyphs.

10. Kazakhstan Lines (Kazakhstan)

The Kazakhstan Lines comprise a group of more than 50 geoglyphs in northern Kazakhstan; their sizes range from 90 to 400 meters. Built of earthen mounds and timber, these lines show various geometrical designs, including the swastika, an ancient symbol going back perhaps 12,000 years. Very difficult to see on the ground, these shapes and lines were first identified on Google Earth. During the present, researchers and archaeologists, using aerial photography and ground-penetrating radar, have studied the geoglyphs. Nevertheless, they don’t know when they were created but think they could be as old as 2,000 years. But their purpose remains a mystery.

9. Effigy Mounds (USA)

Located in the northwestern section of Iowa, Effigy Mounds National Monument features about 200 earthworks, some 30 of which are animal-shaped; the largest is Big Bear Mound, measuring 42 meters in length and over one meter in height above the surrounding ground. Built by the Mound Builder Cultures in the Midwestern section of the US, these geoglyphs were constructed during the first millennium CE and cover an area of over 2,500 acres. Numerous American Indian tribes are associated with the people who built the mounds, including the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska, the Sac and Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa and the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin. President Harry Truman established Effigy Mounds National Monument in 1949.

8. Atacama Giant (Chile)

The Atacama Giant is found in the Atacama Desert, one of the driest places on earth, where, in some places, no rainfall has ever been recorded, which helps just about anything there last a very long time, including the nearly 5,000 geoglyphs in the area. Almost 400 feet long, the Atacama Giant is the largest anthropomorphic figure in the world and was built by either the Inca or Tiwanaku between 1000 and 1400 CE. Scientists think the geoglyph, which depicts the rain god, is a lunar calendar, which marks the position of the setting moon, thereby helping calculate the upcoming crop cycle and season, valuable information in a land where it rarely rains.

7. Wari Tapestry (Peru)

Built by the Wari Culture, which existed from 500 to 1000 CE, this impressive geoglyph is approximately 60 by 40 meters in size and somewhat resembles the tapestries or murals produced in the area for centuries; it is also similar in style to the famous Nasca Lines, also located in Peru. Found in the Arequipa area of Peru, this geoglyph has been nicknamed “Gross Munsa” in Spanish. Interestingly, the Wari were a warlike people similar to other Peruvian cultures such as the Moche, Chimu and Inca. The Wari were great builders of stone and produced elaborate agricultural terraces and canals.

6. Sajama Lines (Bolivia)

In the western Altiplano of Bolivia, enigmatic lines can be seen that seemingly go on without end – for over 22,000 square kilometers, actually. Built by the ancient people of Bolivia, perhaps as long ago as 3,000 years, the Sajama Lines were created when indigenous folks cleared away the covering of plants and dark rocks, revealing the lighter subsurface soil and rocks. These lines are mostly straight as an arrow and, as seen from the air, one may wonder how the builders could have made these orderly geometrical lines without surveying equipment. Since the Sajama Lines cover such an immense area, they are sometimes considered the largest artwork on earth, as well as the most expansive archaeological site. At present, nobody knows why these lines were built.

5. Paracas Candelabra (Peru)

Sometimes called the Candelabra of the Andes, or trident or lightning rod of the Andean god Viracocha, the Paracas geoglyph can be seen on the Paracas Peninsula at Pisco Bay in Peru. Having been dug two feet into the sandy soil, this artistic excavation is almost 600 feet in length and can be seen as far away as 12 miles. Pottery remnants found near the geoglyph have been dated to 200 BCE, indicating the Paracas culture probably built the structure. Interestingly, the Paracas culture also built other geoglyphs in the Palpa province of Peru. The Paracas culture is well-known for producing some of the finest textiles in Ancient Peru. Nevertheless, like many other mysterious structures on this list, nobody knows for certain what it represents or why it was made.

4. Cerne Abbas Giant (England)

Found near the village of Cerne Abbas in Dorset of the United Kingdom, the Cerne Abbas Giant, or sometimes called the Rude Man of Cerne, is a hillside earthwork comprised of an ithyphallic man, perhaps a hunter, wielding a club. Often considered a depiction of the Greek god Hercules, or a Celtic-British figure of some kind, the giant was probably made in the 1600s - or so most experts claim. But some think it was constructed during the Early Medieval Period, or even during Roman times, centuries before. Carved into the white chalk found underneath a layer of turf, making it very easy to see, the giant is about one acre in size and is kept in very good condition; it’s re-chalked every 25 years. Moreover, in modern times, the giant has become an iconic image in pop culture and can be seen on a beer company’s logo.

3. Great Serpent Mound (USA)

Located near Peebles, Ohio, Great Serpent Mound was discovered by surveyors in 1848 and later designated as a National Historical Monument. This earthwork is a serpent effigy that’s 1,348 feet long and as high as three feet above ground. Built of soil, rocks and clay and covered by turf, the mound resembles an undulating snake eating an egg (some scientists think the egg represents the sun). Nobody knows the origin of the monument, though scientists theorize there could have been a succession of builders: the Adena Culture about 300 BCE, the Hopewell Culture about 500 CE and the Fort Ancient Culture in 1070 CE. All of these peoples were mound builders in the tradition of the Mississippian cultures of the US, so perhaps all three should be given credit for creating it. Interestingly, Great Serpent Mound is considered the largest serpent effigy on the planet, though serpent effigies in Scotland and Ontario, Canada are similar in appearance.

2. Uffington White Horse (England)

Built sometime during the late Bronze Age or early British Iron Age, the Uffington White Horse is a master work of minimalistic art. Comprised of trenches filled with white chalk, and about 260 feet in length, this earthwork is generally considered to represent a running horse, though it bears some resemblance to a saber toothed cat, dog or perhaps another animal (take your pick). White horse or not, in midwinter the sun seems to overtake the geoglyph, thereby depicting a solar deity. Interestingly, there are other white horses in England, namely the Kilburn White Horse, the Folkestone White Horse and the Westbury White Horse, all of which built of white chalk and very impressive, though not quite as large and stylized as the Uffington White Horse. Understandably, in pop culture, this horse has been the inspiration for many works in modern fiction and music, notably Rosemary Sutcliff’s novel, Sun Horse, Moon Horse (1977).

1. Nazca Lines (Peru)

In terms of size, impressive artistic and naturalistic depictions, as well as variety of forms, no geoglyphs are more spectacular than the Nazca Lines. Located in the Nazca Desert, the so-called Nazca Lines are a collection of lines and geometric shapes, but more than 70 are zoomorphic designs of monkeys, jaguars, fish, llamas, spiders and birds, as well as many other animals found locally. Human figures are also found, some of which quite large. Built by the Nazca Culture between 500 BCE and 500 CE, the largest of these figures is 1,200 feet long. Interestingly, some writers and researchers suggest that ancient astronauts built the Nazca Lines, theorizing they would have been too difficult for indigenous folks to produce. But scientists have proven the lines could have been made using the tools and knowledge available to the Nazca people. Of course, nobody knows for sure why they were built, but theorists suggest they had astronomical and/or religious significance.

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Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Kelley

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        Kosmo Kelley 3 weeks ago

        Thanks for the comment, Peggy Woods. I agree that the Nazca Lines are fun to gaze upon and read about, while the other earthworks are mind boggling as well.

      • Peggy W profile image

        Peggy Woods 3 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

        I was only familiar with hearing and reading about the Nazca Lines in Peru. Thanks for introducing me to these amazing geoglyphs found in other places around the world. It is hard to fathom how they were built in ancient times.

      • Kosmo profile image
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        Kelley 3 weeks ago from California

        Thanks for the comment, GH Price. I'm fascinated about anything regarding the ancient world, as this article would seem to suggest. Later!

      • Georgie Lowery profile image

        GH Price 3 weeks ago from North Florida

        I have always been fascinated by what our ancient ancestors got up to. This is a great article - well written and full of interesting information. Thank you for sharing!

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