Nazca Lines

Author Alexander Stewart discusses of one of South America’s most puzzling mysteries.

Written by Alexander Stewart


The Hummingbird, Nazca, Peru by gary yim ShutterstockThe Hummingbird © gary yim, Shutterstock

The Nazca etched the lines into the desert from about 400BC to AD600. The shallow designs – 10–15cm deep – were made by removing the top, redcoloured rocks of the desert to reveal the white-grey ground below. Because the conditions are arid and stable and there’s little wind to disturb things, the drawings have endured.

They remained unknown until spotted in 1927 by a Peruvian archaeologist. The first explanation of their function came in 1941, when an American scholar was the first to fly over the Lines and noticed the shapes. He also observed that one of the lines was aligned with the sunrise on the winter solstice, suggesting they had connections to astronomy.

Much of our understanding of the Lines is due to the work of Maria Reiche, a German mathematician and researcher who began studying the lines during the 1930s and spent more than 50 years investigating them.

Her detailed study led her to believe that the lines were part of a vast astronomical calendar. She also believed that the lines had a practical day-to-day purpose that meant that people could measure when to harvest crops, or hold festivals. Reiche supposed that the Lines were drawn using long cords attached to stakes embedded in the desert, which allowed the artist to create a series of arcs of varying length.

Scholars have since replicated the technique to demonstrate that with simple technologies even a small group could draw the designs without aerial assistance. Alternative theories include suggestions that the Lines were running tracks, weaving patterns, ceremonial walking routes, a map of the empire, inspiration for shaman or even landing sites for alien spacecraft, as advocated by the eccentric Eric von Daniken.

More recent suggestions include the idea that the Lines were sites for offerings and the worship of water and fertility, essential elements for a desert culture like the Nazca. Regardless of your view point, they remain one of South America’s most enigmatic mysteries.

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