About 250 miles south of Lima, Peru you will find a collection of giant geoglyphs along the Peruvian coastal plain known as the Nazca lines. They were created by the ancient Nazca culture, and depict different shapes, plants, and animals. The 2000-year-old Nazca lines can only be fully appreciated if viewed from the air. In 1994, the site was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Despite having been studied for over 80 years, they are still a mystery
Within the Nazca lines, there are three types of lines: pictorial representations, geometric designs, and straight lines. There are over 800 straight lines along the coastal plain, some of which are 30 miles long. There are more than 300 geometric designs, which include shapes like wavy lines, zig-zags, arrows, spirals, trapezoids, rectangles, and triangles.
What the Nazca lines are, perhaps, best known for are their representations of around 70 plants and animals, some of which are 1200 feet long. Some of the designs include a dog, lizard, tree, flower, duck, llama, whale, monkey, cactus, hummingbird, and spider. The Nazca people also made representations of other forms, like a humanoid figure, which has been given the name “The Astronaut,” hands, and unidentifiable depictions.
A team of Japanese researchers, in 2011, discovered a new geoglyph that looked to represent a scent of decapitations. It came in at 4.2 meters long and 3.1 meters wide, which was far smaller than any of the other Nazca creations, and can’t easily be seen from aerial surveys. The Nazca people often collected “trophy heads,” and research from 2009 found that most of the trophy skulls came from the same group of people as they were buried with instead of some outside culture.
In 2016, those same scientists found a new geoglyph. This time they found a 98-foot-long mythical creature with several legs and spots, with its tongue sticking out. Peruvian archaeologists, in 2018, announced that they had found more than 50 new geoglphs in the area. They had used drone technology to map the areas with unprecedented detail.
The Nazca culture started around 100 CBE and survived until 700 AD. Anthropologists believe that the people of the Nazca culture created the majority of these lines. The Paracas and Chavin cultures, which predate the Nazca, might have made some of these markings. The Nazca lines are found in the desert plains of the Rio Grande de Nasca river basin. This is an archaeological site that spans more than 75,000 hectares and is one of the driest places on Earth.
Iron oxide-coated pebbles cover the desert floor, giving it a deep rust color. The ancient people made the designs by removing the top 12 to 15 inches of rock, revealing the lighter-colored sand underneath. They probably started with smaller models and then increased the proportions to make larger designs. Most of the geoglyphs that have been studies were created by getting rid of rocks from only the border of the figures, making an outline of sorts, while the rest were made by getting rid of the rocks in the interior.
While we know they dug these rocks out to form lines and such, how did they do so? They couldn’t have done it solely by hand. Given the precision of the shapes and their proportions, it’s believed that they used grids from ropes and stakes to represent the drawings. Maria Reiche came up with some theories as to how the drew the lines. For the straight lines, the Nazca people may have used wooden stakes attached by a rope. They would place the stakes a type of guide in a straight line. This technique gave them the ability to repeat the process and draw out very long lines and shapes.
For the spirals, the people may have tied a rope to two or three posts in triangular patterns. Then they would rotate it to draw a growing spiral.
When they drew figures, they would design and even pain the figures to scale on canvas first. To make them in the dessert, the Nazca tied ropes to takes and drew in various proportions.
Given the fact that the desert doesn’t see much wind, rain, or erosion, the geoglyphs have remained mostly unscathed all of these years. Conservation is also due to the fact that after absorbing the heat of the day, the contour stones create a cushion of hot air that protects them from wind. The soil also contains plaster which, when it gets cooled by the morning mist, creates a protective layer. This is why the Nazca lines have been able to survive for so many years.
The Peruvian archaeologist, Toribio Mejia Xesspe, started to systematically study the lines in 1926, but it wasn’t until pilots flew over them in the 1930s did that start to gain widespread attention. Since then, experts have debated their purpose. American historian, Paul Kosok, studied the geoglyphs from the air and ground during the late 1930s and early 1940s. Based on the position of the line in relation to the sun around the winter solstice, he came to the conclusion that the geoglyphs likely had an astronomy-related purpose.
Soon after, the German archaeologist, Maria Reiche, came to the same conclusion that the designs did have an astronomical and calendrical purpose. She also said that some of the animals were representations of groups of stars. However, Gerald Hawkins, an American astronomer, as well as other researchers, disagreed with the astronomical explanations in the late 1960s and early 1970s. They also poked holes in the belief that they were created by aliens or ancient astronauts.
Some recent research has found that the Nazca lines may have related to water, which was a valuable commodity for the arid lands of the Peruvian coastal plain. They didn’t use the geoglyps as a form of irrigation system, but as part of a ritual to the gods. It was an effort to bring much-needed rain. David Johnson and Johnny Isla believed that the figures were markers for subterranean water flow. They believed that the geoglyphs formed a huge map of underground water resources indicating locations of aqueducts and wells.
For example, a trapezoid indicated that there was a well below the ground. Circles were drawn near springs or fountains. The hummingbird would indicate a large well. While this theory is certainly interesting, it is not applicable to all of the drawings. The glyph that is surrounded with the most mystery is that of the spider. Entomologists have discovered that the spider design is of a genus belonging to Ricinulei, which is one of the world’s rarest spiders. This type of spider is not indigenous to Peru, but is found in the most inaccessible places in the Amazon forest, which is 932 miles away. The spiders reproductive organs are located at the end of one leg, but can only be visible under a microscope, so the question remains, how did they design it with such fine detail remains unanswered.
The evidence to back this is the animal depictions. Some of the animal depictions are symbols of fertility, rain, or water, and have been discovered at several other ancient Peruvian sites and on pottery. In 2015, at the 80th annual meeting of the Society of American Archeology, researchers argued that the purpose of the Nazca Lines changed. At first, pilgrims going to the Peruvian temples would use the geoglyphs as ritual processional routes. Later groups would smash ceramic pots on the ground at the intersection of the lines as part of religious rites.
While archeologists, anthropologists, and other scientists have spent their careers trying to find logical reasons for the Nazca lines, there are those who have more creative reasons for the Nazca lines. This first reason isn’t really all that crazy given the belief systems of ancient people. Erich Von Daniken believed that the Nazca lines were made to a landing light, visible only to gods, guiding them and awaiting their return to earth. Along the same lines, but much more odd, is the idea that they were landing strips for extra-terrestrial aircraft.
Continuing with the idea of it being UFOs, this idea was strengthen when a three-finger corpse was found in a tomb near the Nazca lines. This corpse was believed to be either an undiscovered species or an alien. However, DNA samples of the corpse proved to be 100% human.
Unlike the majority of historical relics in the world, the Nazca lines are largely spared from unintentional destruction because of their location. However, that doesn’t mean the geoglyphs are completely safe. In 2009, the Nazca lines faced its first recorded instance of rain damage. Heavy downpours that flowed from the Pan-American Highway deposited clay and sand on three fingers of a hand-shaped geoglyph.
Five years after that, Greenpeace damaged an area near the hummingbird geoglphy during a media stunt. They disturbed the upper layer of rocks next to the hummingbird when they decided to traipse through an off-limits area to lay down a large sign that promotes renewable energy.
Then in 2018, a commercial truck driver was arrested after he drove across a part of the Nazca lines, etching scars into an area about 100 feet by 330 feet. The damage done by the truck driver renewed calls for greater security and surveillance at the site.
If you would like to see the Nazca lines in person, there are a couple of ways that you can do it. You can take a flight over the lines, which starts from the Nazca airport and the Paracas airport. There are some tours in Paracas where this destination will be included. Whether you decide to go for a luxury Nazca lines tour or you choose a budget friendly option, you will find yourself fascinated by the figures. There is also an observation tower located on the outskirts of Nazca that you go to the top of an see the lines from if a plane isn’t your style. However, the best way is by plane. You can see the lines more clearly.
There you have it. The mysterious, and beautifully designed Nazca lines will likely remain a mystery. But I don’t think that’s such a bad thing. Mystery makes life more interesting. Whether the lines were for the gods, to mark water, road marks, or for UFOs, the world may never know.