The Nazca Lines form one of the most intriguing ancient constructions. Huge drawings etched into the earth's surface in southern Peru, they can only really be seen properly from the air. Around 300 of the 'geoglyphs' (as they should more accurately be named) have been identified. In addition, there are many different 'biomorphs', or animal motifs, that litter the desert. Depictions of native South American animals including monkeys, tarantulas, condors, iguanas and hummingbirds can be seen, along with various geometric patterns such as spiralling circles, perfect parallel lines and other trapezoids - some spanning as much as 14km (9 miles). It is an incredible array of art and design and the mystery surrounding their creation still remains.
Where are they?
The geoglyphs are to be found on a high desert plateau that stretches between the towns of Nazca and Palpa, in an area known locally as the Pampas de Jumana. The lines were first witnessed by modern civilisation when they were spotted by pilots and passengers of commercial airliners during regular flights across the Peruvian desert in the 1920s. In 1927, local doctor and anthropologist Toribio Mejia Xespe took it upon himself to gain a further understanding of the lines, as he felt that they were 'great Incan ceremonial artifacts'. Research showed that the designs were apparently created by the native Nazca peoples between 200 BC and 600 AD.
The Nazca1 culture was at its height in the region between 300 BC and 800 AD. The people lived mainly along the coastal area of southern Peru and became strong in both agriculture and fishery as well as pottery and textiles. The same designs found on Nazcan pottery and in their woven textiles can be seen to a great extent in the Nazca Lines. It is likely that the desert was revered by the Nazcans because it could give and take life so easily. For this reason, effigies of the many creatures and plants that the Nazcans relied upon for survival were also placed in high regard - perhaps even worshipped as gods - including many types of birds, whales, sharks, fish, snakes, seeds, flowers and cacti. The society was so successful that a great city called Cahuachi was built, overlooking the designs on the plateau.
How were the Lines Made?
The Nazca Lines were made by removing the layer of iron-oxide coated pebbles that covered the desert surface. When this gravel was removed the pebbles drew a stark contrast with the light-coloured soil underneath. The furrows made in the earth were drawn with great accuracy and it is likely that the Nazca people had both a thorough understanding of geometry and basic engineering, much like the ancient Egyptians. The drawings remain on the plateau after so many years due to the lack of wind, dry desert air and limited human interaction.
What are they there for?
Since their modern discovery, there have been a variety of theories put forward to explain why the Nazca Lines exist. From primitive decoration, through to runways for alien spacecraft, some of the more common ideas follow:
Calendar - Many ancient civilisations appear to have had complex calendars and methods of measuring time. From the Great Pyramids through to Stonehenge, both laypeople and scientists have considered the use of many ancient monuments as calendars. The Nazca Lines were thought to be a countdown for either a great disaster or a change in the world of the people who constructed them, but there have also been suggestions that the lines are a star map and that by following the path of stars when looking up at the night sky from certain points on each of the drawings, the Nazcans were able to accurately measure the passing of time - thus predicting seasons and other weather conditions.
UFO Runways - Novelist and eccentric Erich von Däniken2 proposed that the lines were landing strips for alien spacecraft, on the pretence that it would be impossible for ancient civilisations to have the technology to both construct and imagine the lines. He felt that the length and breadth of the Nazca Lines had to come from an extra-terrestrial intelligence and came to the amazing conclusion that spaceships would have used the lines and drawings as a giant spaceport. However, similar figures using technology available to the Nazcans have been reproduced without the use of any aerial viewpoints - from spaceships or otherwise. With careful planning, simple geometry and reasonable manpower, the largest geoglyph could be constructed within 48 hours. There are other cultures throughout the world that show an understanding of natural topography, one such being the indigenous Australians, who through art and the use of songlines3 can create maps and designs of regions - very similar to aerial photography.
Religious Purposes - Local lore suggests that the Nazcans created the designs for similar reasons to other ancient cultures who had created monuments for use in rituals to their gods. There is the suggestion that the people would use the drawings as giant outdoor temples and walk along the lines, giving thanks or asking for favours from the god of their choice, often represented by an animal. Many of the lines are aligned with compass points or areas that herald the onset of rains. They also point to water from underground rivers that flow from the Andes mountains. The asking of the gods for life-giving waters is a common theme in many ancient South American cultures and the Nazcan were no different. This theory is the most likely explanation for the construction of the lines.
Keeping in the Lines
The Nazca desert is one of the driest regions on Earth. With limited rainfall it has a steady temperature of around 25°C (77°F) all year. This natural dryness has assisted in the preservation of the lines. Backed by the work of archaeologist Maria Reiche, the Nazca Lines became a World Heritage Site in 1995, thus lessening the chances of accidental or wanton destruction of the geoglyphs.
See for Yourself
On visiting Peru, any opportunity to see the Nazca Lines should be taken! There are many package tours available, either through the Peruvian Tourist Board or with local guides. You can reach the city of Nazca by taking an eight-hour bus ride from the Peruvian capital, Lima, along the coast. Once there, flights (which sometimes prove expensive) can be arranged over the Nazca desert. It is also possible to take a visit to the nearby watchtower Mirador4 and see some of the drawings, albeit from a distance. Only those with eagle eyes or high-powered binoculars should try this method of viewing. For the best and most affordable view of the Lines, though, day flights over the desert are available from Lima. Via these, the true beauty and majesty of the work of the ancient Nazca can be fully appreciated.
It is important to note, though, that entrance to the Nazca Lines themselves is strictly prohibited.