What's with those mysterious shapes NASA photographed in Kazakhstan?

They're geometric patterns built out of earth and clay possibly as long as 8,000 years ago. But by whom and for what is not yet clear.

Last month, NASA shared its satellite photographs of mysterious geometric shapes the size of several football fields that were first discovered accidentally in Kazakhstan in 2007.

Because of their size, the geometric patterns – or geoglyphs – of rings, swastikas, squares, lines, and crosses, are identifiable only from the sky. NASA’s new images were taken by satellite from about 430 miles above earth, showing details as small as 30 centimeters by 30 centimeters, reported The New York Times.

“I’ve never seen anything like this; I found it remarkable,” said Compton J. Tucker, a senior biospheric scientist for NASA. He said NASA is mapping the entire region around Turgai in northern Kazakhstan, near its border with Russia, to see if it can find more of these ancient creations.  

The earthworks are made out of dirt, clay, and rock. Some may be as old as 8,000 years.

This would date the structures – the largest of which is a giant square of 101 raised mounds of dirt and clay, its opposite corners connected by a diagonal cross the lines of which are a quarter of a mile long – to the last phase of the Stone Age, which marks the beginning of farming and of wide use of sharp tools made of stone.

If this proves true, these structures, known as the Steppe Geoglyphs, are about twice as old as Stonehenge in England and the pyramids in Egypt, and they’re challenging archaeologists' views on the sophistication of early nomads, reported the Times.

“The idea that foragers could amass the numbers of people necessary to undertake large-scale projects — like creating the Kazakhstan geoglyphs — has caused archaeologists to deeply rethink the nature and timing of sophisticated large-scale human organization as one that predates settled and civilized societies,” Persis B. Clarkson, an archaeologist at the University of Winnipeg who viewed some of images, told the Times.

These impressive earth patterns made of mounds, trenches, and ramparts were first described last year at an archaeology conference in Istanbul, seven years after they were first observed by Kazakh economist and archaeology enthusiast Dmitriy Dey using Google Earth, according to the Times.

“It was very, very hard to understand from the ground,” Mr. Dey told the Times. “The lines are going to the horizon. You can’t figure out what the figure is.”

Since 2007, Mr. Dey has identified at least 260 of the giant structures, all in the five basic shapes. One is the Torgay swastika, a three-legged shape with curled tips, about 300 feet in diameter.

Although it’s not confirmed, Dey believes the structures were built to track the sun. His research links the designs to the Mahandzhar culture, which flourished in the area from 7,000 B.C. to 5,000 B.C. Dey and a research team from local universities found artifacts of a Neolithic settlement 6,000 to 10,000 years old, including spear points, nearby.

"As of today, we can say only one thing — the geoglyphs were built by ancient people. By whom and for what purpose, remains a mystery," Dey’s collaborators, archaeologists Irina Shevnina and Andrew Logvin, of Kostanay University, told LiveScience in an e-mail last year.

Ancient geoglyphs have been found in many other countries, including the UK, Brazil, the US, and Peru, famous for the Nazca Lines geoglyphs created between 500 BC and 500 AD.

The introduction of high-resolution Google Earth imagery over the last decade has helped both professional archaeologists and amateurs find these structures, reports LiveScience.

Archeologists are trying to protect the sites so they can study them further, possibly by using drones, reports the Times, as the Culture Ministry in Peru has been doing to map and protect ancient sites.

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