Since Halloween is the time to celebrate the unknown and mysterious, I thought I would talk about one of the greatest mysteries in South America. The Nazca Lines are a series of geoglyphs or large land designs made by pre-Inca settlers (the Nazca people) in the Peruvian desert. The designs, made between 400 BC and 10th century AD, stretch around 200 square miles, and include straight lines and geometrical figures. The most astounding of the designs are around 70 giant (up to 370 meters in size) designs of animals and plants (as well as some unrecognisable figures). Some of the well-known depictions are that of a hummingbird (hermit), a monkey, a spider, a heron, a dog, a tree and a flower, but there are also designs of human hands and a “giant”.
Procedure for Making Nazca Lines
In ancient times, people created the designs now known as the Nazca Lines by removing a layer of rock (15 inches) and thereby revealing the lighter-coloured sand in the desert floor. Some of the designs can be created by removing rocks from the interior of the model, while others by removing rocks on the line borders of the proposed images. The designs have remained intact to our day due to little to no erosion or rain in this part of Peru. However, the majority of geoglyphs and the sheer size of some of them could only be detected/investigated from the air, and, thus, most of them only gained worldwide awareness when planes started to fly over that area of Peru circa the 1930s.
One eccentric theory related to the making of the lines is that it was impossible to make them without some hot-air balloon technology (since people making them must have perceived the final image from above to make accurate calculations as to the design). This not very popular theory is pushed forward by Julian Nott (The Extraordinary Nazca Prehistoric Balloon).
Purpose of the Nazca Lines
Unlike such structures as the Great Pyramid of Giza, the real mystery of the Nazca Lines is not how they were made, but their purpose. It is almost inconceivable that humans would have spent so much time and exerted so much energy to produce a mere “decorative” land art. Though this “mere art” purpose is also valid since there is no definitive answer found as yet.
In past times, the following major theories as to the purpose of the Nazca Lines were put forward:
– The Nazca designs had an astronomical and calendrical purpose. This is a theory famously put forward by Maria Reiche (1903 -1998), a German archaeologist. Reiche believed that some representations can be linked to constellations, and that some images are in fact attemps to depict constellations. Her protégé later made it clear that Reiche probably believed that the images did not represent constellations as such, but “irregularly-shaped dark patches” seen in our Milky Way (NY Times, Maria Reiche Obituary). Reiche also believed that the land designs acted as a “giant solar calender”, given the special position of some designs to the sun. Paul Kosok, an American Professor, also called the lines “the largest astronomy book in the world”, after he detected that the lined formed a perfect alignment with a sunset. Simone Waisbard supported this theory, saying that the lines are “a giant astronomical calendar”, and that the line system was used to measure the “precipitation value”.
– The Nazca Lines were made as part of a ritual to appease the Gods in order to bring more rain. Johan Reinhard proposed in 1985 that the Nazca Lines are images used in religious practices that emphasise worshipping deities that are associated with water and crops. The German Archaeological Institute and the Institute of Andean Archaeological Research gave some strength to this theory since they discovered a number of “religious offerings in small cavities near the geoglyphs”. These offerings might have served to appease the Gods.
– David Johnson, an American researcher, proposed a view that the Nazca Lines represent a giant map that traces underground water sources. He came to this conclusion while studying some Nazca lines and realising that some of them are connected with ancient aqueducts (piquios). In this vein, lines may show to others the location of aqueducts and the source of water. However, it is generally known that Johnson’s theories are in opposition to the common understanding of Andean agricultural methods.
Rosa Lazaponara gave some credibility to Johnson’s theory when her group of researchers used satellite images to investigate ancient aqueducts or piquios found near the designs. The group tried to see below the ground to detect underground water channels, and they found some near the lines. However, the conclusion of Lasaponara is more in line with that by Johan Reinhard that states that water-deity worshipping was the purpose of the lines, since Lasaponara concluded that “the Nazca lines were a way to thank the gods” for water (transmission).
– Another theory is that the Nazca lines served as racetracks for athletes who competed in Olympic-style competitions to honour the deities. This one was proposed by an author George A. von Breunig in 1980. Linked to von Breunig’s theory is the theory by Michael Coe who thinks that the Nazca Lins are sacred paths that people walked on as part of a ritual to honour deities.
– Finally, Erich Von Däniken, a Swiss writer, proposed a theory in his book Chariots of the Gods? (1968) that the Nazca Lines were built to be used as airfields for extra-terrestrial beings’ spaceships. Von Däniken also thought that some geoglyphs represented extra-terrestrials (such as, probably, the “Astronaut” geoglyph).
It is interesting to note that none of the theories above can explain all of the individual geoglyphs.
Mystery of “The Astronaut” Geoglyph
The geoglyph has been called the “astronaut”, the “giant” and the “owl-man”, and while conspiracists believe it represents some alien being in a space-suit, the more popular theory is that this is a fisherman, since he is supposedly holding a net under his arm and a sack preparing or returning from fishing. Given the costal region, this makes sense. And, if that being is connected to fishing, then he is also connected to water, giving power to some “water” theories to explain the original making of the Nazca Lines.
A trio of Japanese researchers (Masaki Eda (Hokkaido University Museum), Takeshi Yamasaki (Yamashina Institute for Ornithology) and Masato Sakai (Yamagata University) has conducted research that revealed that bird geoglyphs were previously misidentified. In particular, what was once believed to be the sixteen depictions of a hummingbird, is, in fact, images of a species making up a sub-group of hummingbird – a hermit. This species lived in a forested area of Peru and is considered to be “exotic” for the dry region in question. It is also important to be aware that Nazca Lines are still being identified, and that the discoveries have not stopped (for example, as recently as in 2011, a new smaller geoglyph was discovered that allegedly represents a scene of decapitation).
Perhaps we would never find out for certain why the Nazca Lines were made, but the most plausible explanation is probably the one that relates to water and some ritual (such as deity worshipping) connected with it. The prime concern of any person living in such a dry and arid place must have been water and its source, and, therefore, no effort (ritual or design) must have been seen as too much work or elaborate to bring this about. After all, water (rain) means (quite literally) life.
The Reinhard/Lazaponara viewpoints make even more sense since many of the lines that show images are connected to exotic-to-the-region animals that normally dwell in humid forest/jungle habitats (that have plenty of water). This includes a hummingbird, a parrot, a lizard , and, of course, fish and wales (another Nazca depictions) reside in the water itself. One depiction of a spider by the Nazca is also telling since, only recently, researchers have managed to identity the species of that spider depicted in the geoglyph, and it turned out to be a rare spider that resides many miles away in the Amazon rainforest.
- Ancient Origins, The Enigma of the Nazca Lines: Strange Theories and Unaswered Questions, [September 15, 2015].
- Archaeology News Network, Nazca Lines May Be Giant Map of Underground Water Sources [August, 31 2010].
- Foester, B. Nazca: Decoding the Riddle of the Lines (2013).
- New York Times Publications, Maria Reiche, Obituary, NY Times [June, 15 1998].
- Nott, J. Nazca, The Extraordinary Nazca Prehistoric Balloon (with Jim Woodman).
- Reinhard, J. The Nazca Lines: A New Perspective on Their Origin and Meaning (1985).
- Smithsonian Magazine, Scientists Identify Exotic Birds Depicted In Peru’s Mysterious Nazca Lines [June, 21 2019].
- Vice, Satellite Images Revealed the Secret Meaning of These Ancient Desert Spirals [May, 16 2017].