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Nazca lines

Nazca lines - spiralThe Nazca lines are geoglyphs and geometric line clearings in the Peruvian desert. They were made by the Nazca people, who flourished between 200 BCE and 600 CE along rivers and streams that flow from the Andes. The desert itself runs for over 1,400 miles along the Pacific Ocean. The area of the Nazca art is called the Pampa Colorada (Red Plain). It is 15 miles wide and runs some 37 miles parallel to the Andes and the sea. Dark red surface stones and soil have been cleared away, exposing the lighter-colored subsoil, creating the "lines". There is no sand in this desert. From the air, the "lines" include not only lines and geometric shapes, but also depictions of animals and plants in stylized forms. Some of the forms, including images of humans, grace the steep hillsides at the edge of the desert.

The Nazca lines are communal. Their creation took hundreds of years and required a large number of people working on the project. Their size and their purpose have led some to speculate that visitors from another planet either created or directed the project. Erich von Däniken thinks that the Nazca lines formed an airfield for alien spacecraft*, an idea first proposed by James W. Moseley in the October 1955 issue of Fate and made popular in the early sixties by Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier in The Morning of the Magicians. If Nazca was an alien airfield, it must have been a very confusing airfield, consisting as it does of giant lizards, spiders, monkeys, llamas, dogs, hummingbirds, etc., not to mention the zigzagging and crisscrossing lines and geometric designs. It was very considerate of the aliens to depict plants and animals of interest to the locals, even though it must have meant that navigation would be more difficult than a straight runway or a large clearing. Also, the airport must have been a very busy place, needing 37 miles of runway to handle all the traffic. However, it is unlikely spacecraft could have landed in the area without disturbing some of the artwork or the soil. There is no evidence of such disturbance.

The alien theory is proposed mainly because some people find it difficult to believe that a race of "primitive Indians" could have had the intelligence to conceive of such a project, much less the technology to bring the concept to fruition. The evidence points elsewhere, however. The Aztecs, the Toltecs, the Inca, the Maya, etc., are proof enough that the Nazca did not need extraterrestrial help to create their art gallery in the desert.

In any case, one does not need a very sophisticated technology to create large figures, geometrical shapes, and straight lines, as has been shown by the creators of so-called crop circles. The Nazca probably used grids for their giant geoglyphs, as their weavers did for their elaborate designs and patterns. The most difficult part of the project would have been moving all the stones and earth to reveal the lighter subsoil. There really is nothing mysterious about how the Nazca created their lines and figures.

Some think it is mysterious that the figures have remained intact for so many hundreds of years. However, the geology of the area solves that mystery.

Stones (not sand) comprise the desert surface. Rusted by humidity, their darkened color increases heat absorption. The resulting cushion of warm surface air acts as a buffer against the wind; while minerals in the soil help to solidify the stones. On the "desert pavement" thus created in this dry, rainless environment, erosion is practically nil - making for remarkable preservation of the markings (http://www.travelvantage.com/per_nazc.html; this site is now defunct).

The mystery is why. Why did the Nazca engage in such a project involving so many people for so many years?

G. von Breunig thinks the lines were used for running footraces. He examined the curved pathways and determined that they were partially shaped by continuous running. Anthropologist Paul Kosok briefly maintained that the lines were part of an irrigation system, but soon rejected the notion as impossible. He then speculated that the lines formed a gigantic calendar. Maria Reiche, a German immigrant and apprentice archaeologist to Julio Tello of the University of San Marcos, developed Kosok's theory and spent most of her life collecting data to show that the lines represent the Nazca's astronomical knowledge. Reiche identified many interesting astronomical alignments, which had they been known to the Nazca might have been useful in planning their planting and harvesting. However, there are so many lines going in so many different directions that not finding many with interesting astronomical alignments would have been miraculous.

modern anthropology and the lines

The Nazca lines became of interest to anthropologists after they were seen from the air in the 1930s. It is unlikely that a project of this magnitude was not religious in purpose. To involve the entire community for many centuries indicates the supreme significance of the site. Like pyramids, giant statues, and other monumental art, the Nazca art speaks of permanence. It says: we are here and we are not moving. These are not nomads, nor are they hunters and gatherers. This is an agricultural society. It is, of course, a pre-scientific agricultural society, that turned to magic and superstition (i.e., religion) to assist them with their crops. The Nazca had the knowledge to irrigate, plant, harvest, collect, distribute, etc. But the weather is fickle. Things might go smoothly for years, or even centuries, and then, in a single generation entire communities are forced to leave because of extended drought or because of floods or tidal waves, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, fires, or whatever else Mother Nature might hurl their way.

Was this a site for worship? Was this the Mecca of the Nazca? a place of pilgrimage? Were the images part of rituals aimed at appeasing the gods or asking for help with the fertility of theNazca pottery people and the crops, or with the weather or with a good supply of water? That the figures could not be seen as those in the heavens might see them would not be that important for religious or magical purposes. In any case, similar figures to the giants at Nazca decorate the pottery found in nearby burial sites and it is apparent from their cemeteries that the Nazca were preoccupied with death. Mummified remains litter the desert, discarded by grave robbers. Was this a place for rituals aimed at bringing immortality to the dead? We don't know, but if this mystery is ever to be cleared up it will be by serious scientists, not by alienated pseudoscientific speculators molding the data to fit their extraterrestrial musings.

See also Erich von Däniken and sympathetic magic.

*Chariots of the Gods? (1968), Arrival of the Gods: Revealing the Alien Landing Sites at Nazca (1998).

further reading

books and articles

Davies, Nigel. The Ancient Kingdoms of Peru (Penguin Books, 1998).

Fagan, Garrett G. 2006. Archaeological Fantasies: How Pseudoarchaeology Misrepresents the Past and Misleads the Public. Routledge.

Kroeber, A. L., Donald Collier, and Patrick H. Carmichael. The Archaeology and Pottery of Nazca, Peru : Alfred L. Kroeber's 1926 Expedition (Thousand Oaks, California: Altamira Press, 1999).


Spirits in the Sand - National Geographic (2010)

The Nasca Lines Project (1996- )

Nova - Hot Science

Rosalind - Nazca Lines

The Unmuseum - The lines of Peru

Resources for South American Archaeology

news stories

Peru's precious heritage under threat by Hannah Hennessy BBC correspondent in Peru 3/25/04

Traffic snarls Peru’s mysterious lines Garbage trucks roll over Nazca Lines on their way to dump

Last updated 21-Oct-2015

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