Nasca Lines Drawn in Desert Near Coast of Peru Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Although many hypotheses have been advanced, the so-called Nasca lines and figures remain enigmatic. Careful analyses of the Nasca culture indicate that these figures probably served several different purposes.

Summary of Event

About 200 miles (320 kilometers) south of Lima, Peru, is the Nasca Plain, a featureless desert of red-brown pebbles located on a high, rainless plateau. Although the view from the ground is uninteresting, aerial views reveal an enduring and enigmatic human-constructed spectacle, the Nasca lines and images. Etched into the desert floor are a huge conglomeration of lines, geometric shapes, and images of animals. Although the size of the figures is gargantuan, spanning hundreds of feet, they are surprisingly well proportioned, while the lines connecting the figures extend for miles and are absolutely straight.

These markings were created by Nasca peoples some two thousand years ago, when a thin layer of dark rock was removed to reveal the lighter-colored soil beneath, enhanced by stacking the cleared stones along the border to a height of several inches. At ground level, many of the lines are difficult to see and the figures are unrecognizable. Why would these ancient people develop the skills and dedicate considerable time and energy to construct geoglyphs (ground drawings) and markings that are neither intelligible nor impressive when viewed from earth’s surface? There are no nearby hills or mountains to give a higher perspective, and there is no evidence that any type of tower or viewing platform was ever constructed.

The enigma of the lines has aroused speculation ranging from scientific hypotheses to outlandish propositions devoid of archaeological support. One early suggestion was that the geoglyphs, obviously constructed to be viewed from the air, were observed from primitive hot-air balloons. This idea, however, does not explain the many straight lines, or narrow roads, that begin nowhere and lead to nowhere.

Writer Jim Woodman, convinced that constructing large drawings would have been pointless if not viewable from the air, in 1975 enlisted a British balloonist to build a balloon to demonstrate that the ancient Nascans could have flown over the plain. Constructing the balloons from materials readily available and filled with hot smoke from a fire pit, the adventurers managed, with some difficulty, a two-minute flight to a height of 300 feet (91 meters). Although this demonstration proved that balloon flight was at least a theoretical possibility, absolutely no archaeological evidence (such as remnants of huge fire pits) supports the hypothesis.

Another hypothesis, first advanced in the 1950’s by British UFOlogists, was that the Nasca lines served as an airport for extraterrestrials. This idea became popular after Swiss author Erich van Daniken included it in his best-selling 1968 book, Chariots of the Gods. He asserted that the triangles and trapezoids were landing strips constructed and used by ancient astronauts; he even included a photograph of a Nasca “runway” with “parking bays” similar to those found at modern airports. Although widely promoted in the popular press, this hypothesis was never taken seriously by scientists. Throughout van Daniken’s writings, archaeological knowledge is consistently distorted, if not ignored, and ad hominum arguments to discredit professional researchers abound. The concept of using the markings as aircraft landing strips is ludicrous; the surface is so insubstantial that any vehicle lacking four-wheel drive quickly becomes mired in soft sand, and intergalactic travelers would undoubtedly utilize a more sophisticated landing procedure. The so-called runway and parking bays shown in Chariots of the Gods is actually a photograph of the right knee and four claws of a large bird. The shoddy research utilized by van Daniken renders his hypothesis completely devoid of merit and totally inadequate to account for any aspect of the Nasca Plain.

A hypothesis that was widely studied and at one time accepted is that the straight lines were laid out to align with critical rising and setting points of the Sun, Moon, and important stars or constellations, thus functioning as an astronomical calendar. For example, if a “road” lined up with the setting positions of the Sun at the solstices, priests would have an accurate means of tracking seasons, an absolute necessity for successful agriculture. The main proponent of this belief is Maria Reiche, a German mathematician who has devoted forty years of her life to studying, surveying, and protecting the fragile markings from the destructive intrusions of modern technology, such as dirt bikes and four-wheelers.

Although Reiche’s calendar theory is based on sound science and decades of careful observation, it is almost certainly mistaken, even though intricate sky lore was known and practiced by the Incas. Because there are dozens of lines running in every conceivable direction, it is possible that the alignment of a path with an important astronomical event (such as the position of the setting Sun on the summer solstice) occurred by pure chance. Alternatively, the builders could have had some as yet unimagined astronomical purpose for constructing the straight lines; this idea spurred Reiche to survey and graph more than 250 lines. The results demonstrate that the lines are distributed fairly evenly along the horizon, with several slightly denser clusters of possible significance. For example, about a dozen lines point 68 to 70 degrees east of north, the direction where the Pleiades (a prominent star cluster) rose during the later stages of Nasca culture. Unfortunately, her approach was marred somewhat by including many different sorts of lines (straight roads and pieces of complex geometrical figures), all treated equally. If enough lines are included and sufficient astronomical events considered, correlation by pure chance becomes increasingly probable.

A further attempt to examine the astronomical alignment hypothesis was made by astronomer Gerald Hawkins in 1968. Earlier he had used a computer to demonstrate that the stones and other prominent features of Stonehenge (Salisbury Plain, England) aligned with major astronomical events and could be used to predict eclipses. Hawkins used the same computer program to check the alignment of 186 of the Nasca lines against the movements of the Sun, Moon, planets, and stars along the horizon during the period when the lines were constructed. Although 39 of the 186 directions accurately matched major Sun and Moon angles, half could be accounted for by pure chance. Furthermore, the results were inconsistent because some geometrical figures yielded an alignment while an identical figure elsewhere did not. Planetary and major star alignments were even less promising, causing Hawkins to conclude that the astronomical hypothesis could not account for the majority of the lines, although he admitted that several significant lines certainly could be astronomical.

Then what is the most likely explanation for the lines? To comprehend the markings, it is imperative to place the lines in the cultural context of the ancient Nasca peoples. Archaeological research has discovered that constructing lines was not unique to Nasca; similar, if less spectacular, examples can be found elsewhere in their empire, indicating broadly dispersed common motivations that could slowly have altered over time. The scarcity of water compelled the development of elaborate irrigation techniques with technology unsurpassed until the twentieth century. Their success in eking out an existence in an inhospitable environment evolved in tandem with a complex belief system employing powerful hallucinogens to supplicate supernatural animals for support in earthly endeavors. Ceremonies venerating mountain deities identified with weather phenomena and fertility are still performed at the terminuses of some lines, suggesting that a deep-rooted corpus of belief still influences actions of their descendants. The religion affirmed by these visible manifestations seems to embody more than irrational superstition; many of the legends and rites are symbolic synoptic representations distilled from centuries of vigilant observation of nature. By correlating rainfall cycles with celestial regularities, they would have been able to predict the expedient periods of the agricultural cycle to optimize the use of their limited resources.

Today, the ancient preoccupation with rituals is accepted by most scientists as the best explanation for many of the markings. Rituals for agricultural fertility, mountain worship, and the summoning of water (a regional commodity always in short supply) could explain the “roads” as paths leading to the mountain gods and the geoglyphs as sites for ceremonies worshiping supernatural animals.

Significance

The Nasca lines and geogyphs are much more than a remnant of an obscure period of an inconsequential culture. Rather, the figures graphically elucidate perhaps the most remarkable achievement of an extraordinary culture: The Andean people were able, not merely to survive, but also to thrive in a hostile coastal desert where rainfall is virtually unknown. The Nasca figures are not merely a spectacular ancient conception but a symbol of the adaptability and ingenuity of the pre-Columbian civilization of the Andes.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hadingham, Evan. Lines to the Mountain Gods: Nazca and the Mysteries of Peru. New York: Random House, 1987. A critical analysis of the many hypotheses proposed over the years to explain the Nasca lines and a comprehensive review of the Nascan culture presented to support the most likely explanation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kroeber, Alfred Louis, and Donald Collier. The Archaeology and Pottery of Nazca, Peru: Alfred L. Kroeber’s 1926 Expedition. Edited by Patrick H. Carmichael. Walnut Creek, Calif.: AltaMira, 1998. Tells the fascinating story of Kroeber’s discoveries in Peru and his excavation report, which did not see light until the end of the century. The earliest and still the primary analysis of Nasca pottery, architecture, cloth, hair bundles, and other material culture, including early descriptions and photographs of the famous Nasca lines. More than four hundred photographs and drawings, thirty-two in color.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mason, J. Alden. The Ancient Civilizations of Peru. New York: Penguin Books, 1975. Traces the development of Incas’ culture from their predecessors and discusses their history, economics, social organization, religion, intellectual life, and arts and crafts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moseley, Michael. The Incas and Their Ancestors: The Archaeology of Peru. London: Thames & Hudson, 2001. A survey of the development and golden age of Inca civilization emphasizing the art, architecture, and government.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Silverman, Helaine. Cahuachi in the Ancient Nasca World. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1993. A full account, including discussion of the Nasca. Illustrations, maps.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Von Hagen, Adriana, and Craig Morris. The Cities of the Ancient Andes. London: Thames & Hudson, 2001. Although the pages devoted entirely to the Nasca Plain are few, this book offers an excellent survey of Inca cities, monuments, and culture.

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