Canvas Earth: Geoglyphs on the Central Asian Steppes

Like most archaeologists, Andrey Astafyev has spent his life looking down.

Over the past two decades, the Russian scientist has walked the brown saltwort deserts of western Kazakhstan, carefully scanning its dust for clues dropped by the parade of humanity that once migrated through Central Asia: Stone Age hand axes, shell beads dating from the Bronze Age, arrowheads from the Silk Road era, and an occasional musket ball from forgotten 19th-century Tsarist forts. This winter, though, after climbing a remote mountain in his vast and largely unpopulated study area, Astafyev peered down at the landscape and decided to leave a few artifacts of his own. Big ones. Copying the designs of local petroglyphs, he used GPS technology, a quadrocopter drone, and a railroad tie roped to his car to sketch colossal geoglyphs across the steppe.

The result of five month’s toil? A 500-foot-long Argali sheep, a mounted archer taller than three football fields, a stylized camel stretching nearly a quarter mile from nose to tail, and two other gigantic motifs borrowed from local history. When Google Earth updates its satellite imagery of Central Asia, you’ll be able to appraise Astafyev’s artwork from orbit.

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Human Journey

Meet the Author
Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent and National Geographic Fellow Paul Salopek’s 21,000-mile Out of Eden Walk is a multiyear experiment in slow journalism. Moving at the beat of his footsteps, Salopek is walking the pathways of the first humans who migrated out of Africa in the Stone Age and made the Earth ours. Along the way he is covering the major stories of our time—from climate change to technological innovation, from mass migration to cultural survival—by giving voice to the people who inhabit them every day. His words, as well as his photographs, video, and audio, are creating a global record of human life at the start of a new millennium as told by villagers, nomads, traders, farmers, soldiers, and artists who rarely make the news. Join the journey at and on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram at @OutofEdenWalk.