Nasca Lines and Figures

Few archaeological enigmas have excited so much fanciful speculation as the lines and figures etched into the desert near Nasca (or Nazca) in southern Peru. Few of the theories are scientifically tenable, and many are pure fantasy. However, behind the speculation lies a unique cultural phenomenon that for almost a century has attracted the attention of scientists and archaeologists alike.

The coastal strip of southern Peru, which is in effect the northern extension of the Atacama desert in Chile, is one of the most arid and desolate regions of the world. The landscape here comprises a series of flat desert plains, or pampas, separated by oasis-like river valleys. Measurable rainfall occurs on average only once in several years. Rivers are dry for much of the year, and water is plentiful for a short period only, when the seasonal melt-water flows down from the snow-capped Andes to the east. Yet despite the severity of the climatic regime, prehistoric societies flourished in the area for several millennia. Human occupation was concentrated in the valleys, but cultural activity extended onto the adjacent pampas, where it left a distinctive concentration of prehistoric remains.

The small town of Nasca, some four hundred kilometers south of Lima, is situated in such a valley. A distinctive culture flourished here between the first and sixth centuries c.e., leaving an abundant archaeological record including a fine and distinctive style of pottery, brightly colorful and richly decorated. During the centuries before the arrival of the Europeans, the people who lived in this area also seem to have channeled considerable efforts into etching monumental drawings on the desert. The Nasca pampa, an arid plain to the north of the town, covers an area of some two hundred square kilometers (about eighty square miles) and is covered in a vast array of long, straight lines, rectangles and trapezoids, labyrinths and spirals. The greatest concentration of markings is in the northern corner, where a number of large stylized bird and animal figures, as well as less readily identifiable forms, are also found. The overall impression, as viewed from one of the many light aircraft that carry tourists over the plain, is one of a giant

A replica line and spiral built by a team of volunteers in 1984. (Courtesy of Clive Ruggles)

sketchpad, much scribbled upon.

The desert surface here is composed of black ferrous oxide pebbles darkened by oxidation over many centuries. By simply brushing them aside, a bright yellow sandy soil is revealed beneath. This means that the desert markings, often termed geoglyphs, are highly susceptible to modern damage. Merely walking on the pampa is often enough to leave conspicuous footprints, which, owing to the lack of precipitation, will endure almost indefinitely. Worse still, many of the ancient lines and figures are scarred by deep ruts created by cars and even large commercial vehicles, which drive across the open desert in order to avoid paying highway tolls. On the other hand, there is no great mystery about how the Nasca geoglyphs were created, at least in principle. Armed with nothing more than a piece of string and a few sighting poles, a group of six volunteers was able to produce a ten-meter-(thirty-foot-) long straight line ending in a spiral on a nearby pampa in less than ninety minutes (see photo).

Yet the Nasca markings were more than casual doodles. Some lines run for several kilometers, remaining dead straight even where they pass over small hills and dips. The figures, generally too large to be seen for what they are when standing close by, must have been constructed by scaling up from a template of manageable size. The enigma lies not in how the etchings were constructed per se, but in the reasons for their construction on such a vast scale. One suggested motivation for the anthropomorphic figures, which are clearly visible only from the air, is that they were for the benefit of shamans "flying" above the figures under the influence of the powerfully hallucinogenic San Pedro cactus. There is actually some evidence to support this speculation: the San Pedro cactus is depicted upon Nasca pottery; images of birds are very common amongst Nasca artifacts (including, of course, the desert drawings themselves); and traditional beliefs about the spirit world that survive today have much to do with flying. Be this as it may, it is clear that one does not need to resort to explanations totally divorced from the cultural evidence (such as the suggested existence of hot-air balloons), let alone extraterrestrial involvement, to provide plausible theories as to why the Nasca people were motivated to etch vast figures in the desert.

The lines are a more widespread phenomenon than the figures, both in time and space. Pottery fragments scattered in the vicinity of the geoglyphs indicate that the figures are attributable to the "Classic" Nasca period, during the first six centuries c.e., while the lines were created over a longer period of time. Not only do the lines (as opposed to the figures) cover the whole Nasca pampa; they also spread off into the valleys, where they become obliterated by modern cultivation. Similar lines are known on adjacent pampas as well as much farther afield. It just happens that on the Nasca pampa they are exceptionally well preserved, owing to the nature of the surface geology.

Survey work has revealed a network of line centers, mostly located around the edge of the Nasca pampa, with lines of various types radiating out from them. Some of the lines stop dead, others turn corners and continue into labyrinths, but some run on, absolutely straight, for up to several kilometers, connecting different line centers. They are not pathways, at least not casual pathways; they are too perfectly straight. So what was their purpose?

The Peruvian archaeologist Toribio Mejia Xesspe, working in the 1920s, was one of the first to suggest a possible interpretation, dismissing the possibility that the lines were part of an irrigation system in favor of the idea that they were associated with some form of religious ritual. A decade or so later the North American geographer Paul Kosok chanced to observe the sun setting along one of the lines on June 22, the winter solstice in the southern hemisphere. This single fortuitous observation apparently led him to the conviction that the Nasca lines had a calendrical function (he later described them as the "largest astronomy book in the world"), thereby setting the seal on an astronomical interpretation that dominated Nasca studies for many years.

It was this interpretation that inspired a young German mathematics teacher living in Lima, Maria Reiche, to devote a lifetime to studying the

"Walking the lines": a team of volunteers maps some of the Nasca lines in 1984. (Courtesy of Clive Ruggles)

lines. A few visits to the pampa convinced Maria that the lines were directed toward horizon directions where the sun, moon, or stars appeared and disappeared; solving the riddle of the mathematical and astronomical meaning of the lines and figures subsequently became her mission in life. She began to visit the pampa regularly, living the life of a recluse, spending hours, days, and weeks walking on the desert and making measurements. Despite Reiche's unremitting devotion to the investigation of the lines, which lasted for the rest of her life (she died in 1998, aged ninety-five), it produced precious little published hard data. Reiche's book Mystery on the Desert, which has run to several editions, concentrates mainly on descriptive material. In 1968, the astronomer Gerald Hawkins, who had proposed that Stonehenge in England was an astronomical observatory or computer, visited the pampa and carried out a statistical examination of the line orientations. His conclusion, which came as a surprise for many, was that they had no astronomical significance whatsoever, beyond what might be expected by chance. Although very different, both these approaches failed in one fundamental respect: they were divorced from the cultural context. Each, in its different way, was an intellectual exercise dictated by Western concepts of science and mathematics but unrelated to the rich cultural traditions of pre-Columbian America.

Any meaningful explanation for the Nasca lines needs to be couched in a wider, pan-Andean framework. There is, for example, an evident similarity between the network of line centers and radial lines at Nasca and the system of ceques that arose later at the imperial Inca capital of Cusco. A radial structure is also evident in the quipu—Andean recording devices consisting of knotted strings—which it seems natural to lay out so that the strings radiate from the single, "primary," string to which each is attached. Added to this, ethnographic work has revealed the existence of a number of modern, traditional Andean villages, some in the vicinity of Cusco but others as far afield as northern Chile and Bolivia, organized around lines radiating from a central place such as a plaza or church. Attaching importance to straight lines radiating from central places is something that emerges in a variety of cultural contexts in pre-Columbian, historical, and modern South America. The Nasca lines seem to represent an early manifestation of conceptual principles attaching significance to radial lines that may have been remarkably widespread in Andean thought even in pre-Inca times, before becoming integrated into Incaic worldview. Fragments of this principle survive in the present day in a few modern, remote Andean villages.

What does this suggest about the purpose of the Nasca lines? The Incaic ceque system, as we know from historical evidence, was a basic organizing principle of empire, a mechanism of social and political control. Something similar may have been true at Nasca, at least in later, Incaic times. Post-conquest documents relating to land and water use in the vicinity of the pampa shortly after the Spanish conquest suggest that a scheme of social organization not unlike the one that prevailed in Cusco also existed in that region.

The Nasca lines find a counterpart at an elevation of over four thousand meters (thirteen thousand feet) in a series of lines high in the Bolivian Andes. Some of these connect villages to the summits of nearby hills and appear to have been maintained until very recently. In a village southwest of La Paz, anthropologist Johan Reinhard chanced to witness an annual procession along one such line to a hilltop shrine. Here is a community still maintaining and using a straight line during an important springtime festival. After dark, the devotees make their way along the line, which is over one kilometer long. At the summit of a nearby hill, they worship local mountain gods, petitioning for fertility for animals (which are believed to be owned by the mountain) and rain for crops. They descend again to the village in the morning. At similar rituals in other villages there is a sacrificial element, where offerings are made to mountain gods that involve a llama sacrifice. Comparable practices took place during the Inca period.

Some of the Nasca line centers are located at higher points on the predominantly flat plain. Others are on the edges of the pampa, and in some cases lines running up to them from the valleys are still visible. It may well be, then, that the Nasca lines were meant to be walked upon after all, but in a formal sense—according to strict protocols, at the correct times, and in the context of the appropriate rituals. In such an arid environment, it is scarcely surprising that some of these ceremonials may have related to rain and fertility. Nor it is surprising, then, that statistical analyses of the line orientations demonstrate a degree of correlation with local directions of water flow. On the other hand, we should not conclude that there was no connection with astronomy at all. A few evident alignments, for example on solstitial sunrise or sunset, may well have been formed as a deliberate part of the general scheme of things, just as a few of the Cusco ceques seem to have been astronomically aligned.

In short, there is no simple explanation for the lines and figures on the pampa. Looking for simple solutions to a mystery and ignoring the wider cultural context is not the right approach. The Nasca geoglyphs can only ever be understood by trying to understand more about the totality of that cultural context viewed, at best, obscurely through a historical haze.

See also:

Andean Mountain Shrines; Ceque System; Misminay; Quipu.

References and further reading

Aveni, Anthony F. Between the Lines: The Mystery of the Giant Ground Drawings of Ancient Nasca, Peru. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000. (Published in the UK as Nasca: Eighth Wonder of the World? London: British Museum Press, 2000.)

Aveni, Anthony F., ed. The Lines of Nazca. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1990.

Hadingham, Evan. Lines to the Mountain Gods: Nazca and the Mysteries of Peru. London: Harrap, 1987.

Morrison, Tony. Pathways to the Gods: The Mystery of the Andes Lines. London: Paladin/Granada, 1980.

-. The Mystery of the Nasca Lines. Woodbridge, UK: Nonesuch Expeditions Ltd, 1987.

Reiche, Maria. Mystery on the Desert (4th ed.). Stuttgart: Heinrich Fink, 1982. [In German, English, and Spanish.]

Reinhard, Johan. The Nazca Lines: A New Perspective on their Origin and Meaning (4th ed.). Lima: Editorial Los Pinos, 1988.

Silverman, Helaine, and Donald A. Proulx. The Nasca. Oxford: Blackwell, 2002.

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