The Nasca drainage plain is a vast, somewhat desert-like area called a pampa in the southern part of Peru. Although in Nasca it rains very little, the ground is relatively fertile, and there are seasonal rivers, subterranean folds, and springs. Nasca was thus the cradle of a civilization, contemporary to the Moche's civilization, that can be dated between II BC and VI AD, thus many centuries before the Incas.
The Nascas lived in villages and had an impressive ceremonial center, Cahuachi, formed by huge structures and, in particular, dominated by a large brick pyramid (Orefici 2003, Sullivan 1988). The site was abandoned for unknown reasons, perhaps an invasion or climatic changes, around the sixth century AD, and it is suspected that the town was deliberately flooded in order to bury it under a layer of mud. Through various archaeological studies, we have a fairly clear idea of the Nascas' way of life. They were expert farmers, and they skillfully used the underwater available through open air and underground canals. They loved music, so much so that in Cahuachi a large number of musical instruments were found, especially wind instruments similar to multiple-cane flutes, obtained by tying together canes of different sizes and length, which are still in use today; they also had ceramic trumpets, ocarinas, and various types of drums. They also loved to collect human heads, called "trophy heads,'' which were dried using a special technique.
Through the excavation of burial sites, we have learned about the Nascas' arts, especially involving ceramics and fabrics. On the ceramic pieces,
G. Magli, Mysteries and Discoveries of Archaeoastronomy, DOI: 10.1007/978-0-387-76566-2_11, 229 © Praxis Publishing, Ltd. 2009
zoomorphic beings are often represented, or beings that are half men and half animals, as evidence, probably, of a cult based on these type of divinities. The decorative motifs of Nasca textiles are instead typically geometric lines. Indeed, the Nascas seemed to love lines.
In 1920 the pilot of an airplane flying over the Pampas suddenly realized that the plateau was crossed by a large number of artificial lines. He thus unveiled one of the most intriguing mysteries of pre-Columbian archaeology. On the Nasca desert-like surface, somebody drew thousands of kilometers of lines by digging superficial tracks on the ground and removing the pebbles. Most of these "etchings" on the desert surface run straight; others create huge geometric figures (mostly trapezoids). Some groups of lines form gigantic drawings of living beings, tens or even hundreds of meters long (zoomorphic geoglyphs). Thus Nasca is a gigantic work of art, constructed over many centuries.
To describe the Nasca lines, it is crucial to distinguish the geometrical lines from the geoglyphs. The latter include dozens of figures placed in a relatively restricted area of the pampas. They represent living beings, so it is common practice to refer to them by the name of the animals they resemble. I reluctantly follow this practice, and the reason for my reluctance will soon be clear. The animals include a spider, a condor, a monkey, a pelican, a cormorant, a chick, a dog, and a killer whale. (There is also a so-called "astronaut", but this figure could have been added at a much later time.) The resemblance of these very stylized creatures to the corresponding animal is vague at best, for these reasons:
1. One of the spider's legs is too long, which has led some to speculate that it could represent the reproduction apparatus of a particular species that lives only in Amazonia.
2. The condor has too small a head.
3. The monkey sports a wonderful but unrealistic spiral tail, and one of his paws has five fingers and the other only four.
4. The pelican has a rectangular body.
5. The cormorant has a very long zigzag neck.
6. The chick has two enormous "hands", one with five fingers, the other with four; some believe that this figure is a toad.
7. The dog seems to have just suffered an electric shock, and one of his paws has four fingers.
8. The killer whale image is the most similar to the true living being. However, there is another "whale" that strangely has a round burden hanging on its neck, possibly a human head.
In general, the Nascas' zoomorphic creatures are different also from
known Nasca depictions of these animals, with a few exceptions, such as the killer whale, as noted above, and the long-neck bird (Proulx 1990). These two figures are also portrayed on ceramic vases, but it may be that the vases were inspired by the lines, and so we are back to where we started.
All the other Nasca lines are straight paths (often dozens of kilometers long) or huge geometric figures. Among them there are triangles, spirals, and especially trapezoidal shapes, sometimes very large (the largest has an area of about 130,000 square meters).
It is certain that the two classes of lines— zoomorphic and geometric— belong to two different periods. The zoomorphic class is the oldest (or the one that ended first) because some of the geometrical lines cross the figures. It is impossible to date the lines by themselves, and therefore any dating is indirect and based on ceramic findings. There are a large quantity of fragments of ceramic vases near the tracks; most of the ceramic shards are thick and undecorated, suggesting a practical rather than a ritual use (Clarkson 1991), but ceremonial drinking vessels were also found.
The fascinating mystery surrounding the Nasca lines has unfortunately engendered numerous debatable, incorrect, and even foolish ideas. Among the foolish ideas is that the lines are runways for alien spaceships or messages for aliens. But there are a few things we know for certain, and I will discuss those facts. I will also mention some of the incorrect ideas that are still given credence in some quarters.
It often has been said that it is impossible to trace the pampas lines without viewing them from above, but this is incorrect. All that is required is a well-designed plan and the ability to trace precise geometric lines with the aid of poles and ropes. What is fascinating here is that there seem to be no traces of mistakes in the drawings or changes in the figures, and a view from above certainly would have made the line makers' work much simpler. For this reason, and also on the basis of some depictions on ceramic findings, somebody suggested that the Nascas invented the hot-air balloon. In 1975 this theory was put to the test by Bill Spohrer and Jim Woodman, who managed to fly over the pampas for a few minutes in a hot-air balloon prototype built using only materials and techniques that would have been available at the time of the Nascas. However, the experiment, although successful, does not prove that hot-air balloons existed at the time of the Nascas.
Another theory that has a few adherents is that the Nascas' lines were made by a huge number of workers. This, too, is not true. The tracks can be made by removing the pebbles on the surface and baring the ground underneath them. During the 1980s an experiment proved that building a standard Nascan trapezoid (with an area of around 16,000 square meters) requires a team of some 20 people working for 1 week (Aveni 2000). But the work of tracing thousands of kilometers of lines must have been carried out over the course of several decades or even centuries anyway.
Another theory considers the Nascas' geoglyphs to be unique in the world, but in fact there are many others in South America. For instance, the Paracas' famous "candlestick'' on the Peruvian coast, 200 kilometers from Nasca, which is thought by some to be a representation of the Southern Cross (but we know little about who made it or when or why). There are also some beautiful and enigmatic figures in the Acatama deserts in Chile, and a huge system of geometrical lines is reported to exist in the Sajama region of Bolivia's western highlands. The Effigy Mounds in Ohio (see Chapter 7) could themselves be considered geoglyphs, and in England there are some huge images created on chalky hills; these images are difficult to date, although it is possible that some date from the megalithic civilization. The most famous are the beautiful Uffington Horse, probably of Celtic origin; the Cerne's Giant, which perhaps represented Hercules; and Wilmington's Long
Man. These three figures, like the Effigy Mounds, might have astronomical associations; for example, it has been suggested that the Uffington Horse might be associated with the Pleiades.
Thus, based on what we know so far, we can say that the Nasca lines are "simply" the product of ingenious people who were capable of doing things with extreme accuracy and seriousness. But we need to return to the assertion, mentioned earlier, that the meaning of the Nascas' zoomorphic figures can be understood only by viewing them from high above, as from an airplane. This assertion is incorrect, for the following reasons:
1. Many lines can be seen from the surrounding hills.
2. An observation point a few meters high provides sufficient perspective to appreciate the complete shape of the designs.
3. A drawing of a figure can be done by just walking on it.
However, it is true that the global complexity of the zoomorphic geoglyphs can be appreciated only when looking at them from above, at a distance of a few hundred meters. Therefore, I believe that the crucial question to be answered about the zoomorphic figures is whether the Nascas followed predetermined plans for a global project, even if they were aware that the complexity of the project itself would be appreciated only by people who were aware of its existence.
Was this article helpful?