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One of the enormous earthwork configurations photographed from space is known as the Ushtogaysky Square, named after the nearest village in Kazakhstan. Credit: Digitalglobe, via NASA

NASA Sparks Interest in Enigmatic Earthworks of Kazakhstan

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Archaeologists call them the Nazca lines of Kazakhstan – hundreds of giant geoglyphs formed with earthen mounds and timber found stretched across the landscape in northern Kazakhstan. They are designed in a variety of geometric shapes, including crosses, squares, rings, and even a swastika, a prehistoric symbol that has been in use for at least 12,000 years. Now NASA is helping to piece together this ancient landscape by using space-age technology to reveal more of the colossal earthworks, recognizable only from the air.

The New York Times reports that NASA released satellite photographs of some of the figures from about 430 miles (690 kms) up.

“I’ve never seen anything like this; I found it remarkable,” Compton J. Tucker, a senior biospheric scientist for NASA in Washington told The New York Times.

The Bestamskoe Ring is among the so-called Steppe Geoglyphs in Kazakhstan.

The Bestamskoe Ring is among the so-called Steppe Geoglyphs in Kazakhstan. CreditDigitalglobe, via NASA

Around 50 geoglyphs were first spotted on Google Earth in 2007 – a number that has now reached 260 – but they have so far failed to draw significant funding for extensive research.   NASA’s interest in the geoglyphs may change this and help to mobilize support for further investigation.

Last year, a team of archaeologists from Kostanay University in Kazakhstan and Vilnius University in Lithuania investigated the giant structures using aerial photography and ground-penetrating radar. Their results revealed a wide variety of shapes ranging from 90 to 400 metres (295 to 1312 feet) in diameter, mostly made of earthen mounds, but one – the swastika – was made using timber.  Researchers have not yet dated the structures but their characteristics suggest they are between 2,000 years and 8,000 years old.

"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," said archaeologists Irina Shevnina and Andrew Logvin, of Kostanay University, in an email to Live Science in 2014.

Swastika geoglyph in Kazakhstan.

Swastika geoglyph in Kazakhstan. Credit: Image copyright DigitalGlobe, courtesy Google Earth.

Despite a plethora of research on these amazing creations around the world, the purpose of the geoglyphs continues to elude researchers and remains a matter of conjecture. Some scientists believe they are linked to the heavens with some representing constellations in the night sky. Other experts believe that the lines played a role in pilgrimage, with one walking across them to reach a sacred place. Yet another idea is that the lines are connected with water, something vital to life yet hard to get in the desert, and may have played a part in water-based rituals. Archaeological excavations at the Kazakhstan geoglyphs revealed the remains of structures and hearths, suggesting that rituals took place there.

 Some of the geoglyphs found in northern Kazakhstan.

Some of the geoglyphs found in northern Kazakhstan. Credit: Image copyright DigitalGlobe, courtesy Google Earth

The ancient earthworks are concentrated around the region of Turgai in Kazakhstan. 

“In the Cretaceous Period 100 million years ago, Turgai was bisected by a strait from what is now the Mediterranean to the Arctic Ocean. The rich lands of the steppe were a destination for Stone Age tribes seeking hunting grounds,” reports the New York Times.  “The Mahandzhar culture, which flourished there from 7,000 B.C. to 5,000 B.C., could be linked to the older figures. But scientists marvel that a nomadic population would have stayed in place for the time required to fell and lay timber for ramparts, and to dig out lake bed sediments to construct the huge mounds, originally 6 to 10 feet high and now 3 feet high and nearly 40 feet across.”

Pittsburgh University scientists Shalkar Adambekov and Ronald Laporte are currently working to get the area designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site to protect the archaeologically important sites. 

A protected designation may help preserve the ancient sites, and it seems to be sorely needed. In July it was reported by the International News Agency "Kazinform" that some of the unique glyphs had been irreparably destroyed by reconstruction of roads through the area.

Featured image: One of the enormous earthwork configurations photographed from space is known as the Ushtogaysky Square, named after the nearest village in Kazakhstan. Credit: Digitalglobe, via NASA

By: April Holloway



It is not a cross it is a Triskelion.... and ancient Celtic Symbol that represents 'personal growth, human development, spiritual expansion' ... (also referred to as triskele, triquetra or fylfot)

Swastika - It is basically a Cross "+." Four directions.
But the "Earthworks of Kazakhstan" contains a "Three connected line segment." Three directions.
4 is not equal to 3.

Also a dot was formed at the center of the tri-stick pattern.

They are different.

The period during which these structures appear to have been built was the Neolithic. At the time, the Earth was warmer than today, and many areas were wetter too. This was the time when the Sahara was a savannah and you have paintings showing lakes, cattle and your typical African wildlife in an area that is now the middle of the desert.

I can't say for Kazakhstan specifically, but I would not be surprised if what is an arid and infertile semi-desert steppe today was then a bountiful grassland. The Eurasian steppe used to be full of wildlife, so one can imagine great herds of horses, saiga (antelope) and who knows what else. It may have been suitable for grazing cattle...

I do know that other parts of Central Asia were better off in the Neolithic. The Caspian Sea was much higher with glacial meltwater, and connected to the Black Sea and Mediterranean. This is a great docu which goes into some detail...

So, in short, who knows? Perhaps ancient Kazakhstan did have a climate favourable to herders and farmers? Perhaps it was when the area started getting cooler and drier again that people started moving out of the area and bringing their culture with them... Indo-European origins???

Tsurugi's picture

From what little information I could find, those steppes in Kazakhstan are arid and inhospitable and have been since before the onset of the last ice age. Can't grow crops there. Can't live off the wildlife either as there isn't much to speak of.

So it seems likely that whoever constructed these structures would have had to bring food and water with them.
What would be the purpose for an agricultural civilization to build all these in a place they couldn't live?

In modern times we build complex structures in inhospitable places, but it's always for science.

These patterns do have their meanings. Ancient Chinese Yin/Yang Eight Divination Graph.


aprilholloway's picture


April Holloway is a Co-Owner, Editor and Writer of Ancient Origins. For privacy reasons, she has previously written on Ancient Origins under the pen name April Holloway, but is now choosing to use her real name, Joanna Gillan.

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