SCIENCE
11/03/2015 07:35 am ET Updated Nov 03, 2015

These Mysterious Ancient Geoglyphs Can Be Seen From Space

"At the moment, we don't have a clue what they are."

Ancient geoglyphs -- such as the Nazca Lines in Peru or the megalith structures in the Ural Mountains -- captivate the world every time someone finds them. In fact, one group of geoglyphs is so fascinating, NASA scientists have decided to study it from space.

The space agency is officially beginning to investigate the Steppe Geoglyphs, a group of more than 200 giant squares, lines, and rings formed by dirt mounds in the Turgai area of northern Kazakhstan.

NASA released photos of the formations two weeks ago, and the space agency will continue to capture more images as it attempts to help researchers understand what the shapes may have meant to ancient people.

Ushtogaysky Square, a geoglyph made of more than 100 mounds of dirt, is named after a nearby village in Kazakhstan.
DIGITAL GLOBE/NASA
Ushtogaysky Square, a geoglyph made of more than 100 mounds of dirt, is named after a nearby village in Kazakhstan.

"They're really curious and puzzling," said Compton Tucker, a climate scientist at NASA who studies the planet through satellite imaging. "At the moment, we don't have a clue what they are." 

The Bestamskoe Ring, one of the Steppe Geoglyphs.
DIGITAL GLOBE/ NASA
The Bestamskoe Ring, one of the Steppe Geoglyphs.

Archeology enthusiast Dmitriy Dey happened upon the formations while he was searching Google Earth for pyramids, The New York Times reported. Each individual mound in the formation is about three feet high and 40 feet wide.

Some of the mounds may be 8,000 years old, say researchers who have tested how long ago the minerals in the dirt were last exposed to sunlight.

Photographing the Steppe Geoglyphs is now on the official to-do list for NASA's International Space Station. To complete the project, the space agency also has teamed up with DigitalGlobe, a private company that takes high-resolution photos of the Earth with satellites.

Big Ashutastinsky Cross, another geoglyph.
DIGITAL GLOBE/ NASA
Big Ashutastinsky Cross, another geoglyph.

"Astronauts on the ISS like to be kept busy looking at interesting things on Earth," Tucker said. "NASA imagery has likely been used to study these types of formations in the past. But now we have teamed with DigitalGlobe. We're about to get 50 to 60 images from them to work from there." 

The glyphs are 300 to 1,300 feet across, so they can only be fully appreciated from a distant satellite's perspective. 

The Turgai Swastika. The swastika was a common design element in ancient art.
DIGITAL GLOBE/ NASA
The Turgai Swastika. The swastika was a common design element in ancient art.

Dey, who rediscovered the glyphs, thinks they were built by members of the Mahandzhar culture that lived in the area between 7000 and 5000 B.C. 

Other scientists aren't sure whether such nomadic cultures would have stayed put long enough to design and execute such sweeping projects, according to The New York Times. And it's still a mystery why anyone would build the glyphs in the first place. 

"These alignments might have something to do with the calendar, to tell where the movement of the sun was so that the people would have some idea of when the spring or fall was coming, which might be important for their animal husbandry," Tucker told HuffPost. 

"Hopefully, it's not some Bronze Age crop-circle prank, where people thought, 'Let's make a big pattern; in the future they'll be stumped."

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