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Sarah Parcak: Hunting for Peru's lost civilizations -- with satellites

June 27, 2016

Around the world, hundreds of thousands of lost ancient sites lie buried and hidden from view. Satellite archaeologist Sarah Parcak is determined to find them before looters do. With the 2016 TED Prize, Parcak is building an online citizen-science tool called GlobalXplorer that will train an army of volunteer explorers to find and protect the world's hidden heritage. In this talk, she offers a preview of the first place they'll look: Peru -- the home of Machu Picchu, the Nazca lines and other archaeological wonders waiting to be discovered.

Sarah Parcak - Satellite archaeologist + TED Prize winner
Like a modern-day Indiana Jones, Sarah Parcak uses satellite images to locate lost ancient sites. The winner of the 2016 TED Prize, her wish will help protect the world’s cultural heritage. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
In July of 1911,
00:13
a 35-year-old Yale graduate and professor
set out from his rainforest camp
00:15
with his team.
00:21
After climbing a steep hill
00:22
and wiping the sweat from his brow,
00:25
he described what he saw beneath him.
00:27
He saw rising from
the dense rainforest foliage
00:30
this incredible interlocking
maze of structures
00:34
built of granite,
00:37
beautifully put together.
00:38
What's amazing about this project
00:41
is that it was the first funded
by National Geographic,
00:42
and it graced the front cover
of its magazine in 1912.
00:45
This professor used state-of-the-art
photography equipment
00:50
to record the site,
00:54
forever changing the face of exploration.
00:56
The site was Machu Picchu,
00:59
discovered and explored by Hiram Bingham.
01:02
When he saw the site, he asked,
01:07
"This is an impossible dream.
01:09
What could it be?"
01:11
So today,
01:14
100 years later,
01:16
I invite you all
on an incredible journey with me,
01:19
a 37-year-old Yale graduate and professor.
01:23
(Cheers)
01:26
We will do nothing less
than use state-of-the-art technology
01:28
to map an entire country.
01:31
This is a dream started by Hiram Bingham,
01:35
but we are expanding it to the world,
01:38
making archaeological exploration
more open, inclusive,
01:41
and at a scale simply
not previously possible.
01:47
This is why I am so excited
01:51
to share with you all today
01:53
that we will begin
the 2016 TED Prize platform
01:55
in Latin America,
02:01
more specifically Peru.
02:03
(Applause)
02:06
Thank you.
02:08
We will be taking
Hiram Bingham's impossible dream
02:13
and turning it into an amazing future
02:17
that we can all share in together.
02:20
So Peru doesn't just have Machu Picchu.
02:23
It has absolutely stunning jewelry,
02:25
like what you can see here.
02:28
It has amazing Moche pottery
of human figures.
02:30
It has the Nazca Lines
02:34
and amazing textiles.
02:36
So as part of the TED Prize platform,
02:38
we are going to partnering
with some incredible organizations,
02:41
first of all with DigitalGlobe,
the world's largest provider
02:44
of high-resolution
commercial satellite imagery.
02:48
They're going to be helping us build out
02:51
this amazing crowdsourcing
platform they have.
02:53
Maybe some of you used it
02:55
with the MH370 crash
and search for the airplane.
02:57
Of course, they'll also be providing us
with the satellite imagery.
03:01
National Geographic will be helping us
with education and of course exploration.
03:04
As well, they'll be providing us
with rich content for the platform,
03:08
including some of the archival imagery
like you saw at the beginning of this talk
03:11
and some of their documentary footage.
03:15
We've already begun
to build and plan the platform,
03:19
and I'm just so excited.
03:21
So here's the cool part.
03:24
My team, headed up by Chase Childs,
03:25
is already beginning to look
at some of the satellite imagery.
03:28
Of course, what you can see here
is 0.3-meter data.
03:31
This is site called Chan Chan
in northern Peru.
03:35
It dates to 850 AD.
03:37
It's a really amazing city,
but let's zoom in.
03:39
This is the type and quality of data
that you all will get to see.
03:41
You can see individual structures,
individual buildings.
03:46
And we've already begun
to find previously unknown sites.
03:49
What we can say already
is that as part of the platform,
03:52
you will all help discover
thousands of previously unknown sites,
03:55
like this one here,
03:58
and this potentially large one here.
04:00
Unfortunately, we've also begun
to uncover large-scale looting at sites,
04:02
like what you see here.
04:07
So many sites in Peru are threatened,
04:08
but the great part
is that all of this data
04:10
is going to be shared
with archaeologists on the front lines
04:12
of protecting these sites.
04:15
So I was just in Peru,
meeting with their Minister of Culture
04:18
as well as UNESCO.
04:21
We'll be collaborating closely with them.
04:22
Just so you all know,
04:25
the site is going to be
in both English and Spanish,
04:26
which is absolutely essential to make sure
04:29
that people in Peru and across
Latin America can participate.
04:31
Our main project coprincipal investigator
is the gentleman you see here,
04:35
Dr. Luis Jaime Castillo,
04:39
professor at Catholic University.
04:41
As a respected Peruvian archaeologist
and former vice-minister,
04:43
Dr. Castillo will be helping us coordinate
and share the data with archaeologists
04:47
so they can explore
these sites on the ground.
04:51
He also runs this amazing
drone mapping program,
04:54
some of the images of which
you can see behind me here and here.
04:57
And this data will be incorporated
into the platform,
05:00
and also he'll be helping to image
some of the new sites you help find.
05:03
Our on-the-ground partner
05:08
who will be helping us
with education, outreach,
05:10
as well as site preservation components,
05:13
is the Sustainable
Preservation Initiative,
05:15
led by Dr. Larry Coben.
05:17
Some of you may not be aware
05:19
that some of the world's
poorest communities
05:20
coexist with some of the world's
most well-known archaeological sites.
05:22
What SPI does
05:26
is it helps to empower these communities,
05:27
in particular women,
05:29
with new economic approaches
and business training.
05:31
So it helps to teach them
to create beautiful handicrafts
05:34
which are then sold on to tourists.
05:38
This empowers the women
to treasure their cultural heritage
05:40
and take ownership of it.
05:44
I had the opportunity to spend some time
with 24 of these women
05:46
at a well-known archaeological site
called Pachacamac, just outside Lima.
05:50
These women were unbelievably inspiring,
05:54
and what's great is that SPI
will help us transform communities
05:57
near some of the sites
that you help to discover.
06:01
Peru is just the beginning.
06:04
We're going to be expanding
this platform to the world,
06:06
but already I've gotten
thousands of emails
06:09
from people all across the world --
professors, educators, students,
06:11
and other archaeologists --
who are so excited to help participate.
06:15
In fact, they're already suggesting
amazing places for us to help discover,
06:18
including Atlantis.
06:23
I don't know if we're going
to be looking for Atlantis,
06:25
but you never know.
06:28
So I'm just so excited
to launch this platform.
06:29
It's going to be launched formally
by the end of the year.
06:32
And I have to say,
06:35
if what my team has already discovered
in the past few weeks are any indication,
06:36
what the world discovers
is just going to be beyond imagination.
06:42
Make sure to hold on to your alpacas.
06:46
Thank you very much.
06:49
(Applause)
06:51
Thank you.
06:53
(Applause)
06:54

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Sarah Parcak - Satellite archaeologist + TED Prize winner
Like a modern-day Indiana Jones, Sarah Parcak uses satellite images to locate lost ancient sites. The winner of the 2016 TED Prize, her wish will help protect the world’s cultural heritage.

Why you should listen

There may be hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of undiscovered ancient sites across the globe. Sarah Parcak wants to locate them. As a space archaeologist, she analyzes infrared imagery collected from far above the Earth’s surface and identifies subtle changes that signal a manmade presence hidden from view. A TED Senior Fellow and a National Geographic Explorer, she founded the Laboratory for Global Observation at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her goal: to make the world's invisible history visible once again.

Parcak was inspired by her grandfather, an early pioneer of aerial photography. While studying Egyptology in college, she took a class on remote sensing and went on to develop a technique for processing satellite data to see sites of archaeological significance. She wrote the first textbook on satellite archaeology, which allows for the discovery of new sites in a rapid and cost-effective way. In Egypt, her techniques have helped locate 17 potential pyramids, in addition to 3,100 forgotten settlements and 1,000 lost tombs. She's also made major discoveries in the Viking world and Roman Empire, and appeared in the BBC documentary Rome’s Lost Empire and the PBS Nova special, Vikings Unearthed.

Parcak's method also provides a way to see how ancient sites are being affected by looting and urban encroachment. By satellite-mapping Egypt and comparing sites over time, she’s noted a 1,000 percent increase in looting since 2009 at major sites. It’s likely that millions of dollars worth of artifacts are stolen each year. Parcak hopes that, through mapping, unknown sites can be protected to preserve our rich, vibrant history.

As the winner of the 2016 TED Prize, Sarah is building a citizen science platform, called GlobalXplorer, which will enable anyone with an internet connection to discover the next unknown tomb or potential looting pit. GlobalXplorer will launch in early 2017. Sign up for email updates and get early access »

 

 

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