The puzzling case of the Atacama Giant
The most well-known geoglyphs in the world are undoubtedly the Nazca Lines of coastal Peru. Yet, in the Atacama Desert of Chile, there is another group of geoglyphs that are equally as impressive. Although the geoglyphs of the Atacama Desert are less familiar to most, they are far more numerous in number, more varied in style, and cover a much larger area. One of the most intriguing and controversial Atacaman geoglyphs is the so-called Atacama Giant, which continues to stir debate regarding its true meaning and interpretation.
The Atacama Desert is a plateau in South America, west of the Andes mountains, which extends across parts of Peru, Chile, Bolivia, and Argentina. It is the harsh and barren landscape and the driest non-polar desert in the world. Most of the desert is composed of stony terrain, salt lakes, sand, and felsic lava that flows towards the Andes. It is against this backdrop that the massive geoglyph of the Atacama Giant is found, perched on a hill with little else to be found for miles around.
The Atacama desert is a harsh and unforgiving landscape. ( Wikimedia Commons )
The geoglyphs of the Atacama Desert are said to have been made between AD 600 and AD 1500, although accurately dating geoglyphs has always been problematic, so their age cannot be concluded with any certainty. These geoglyphs, numbering over 5000, include geometric, zoomorphic and anthropomorphic figures.
It is commonly held that the people responsible for the production of these geoglyphs were the successive cultures who dwelt in this region, including the Tiwanaku and the Inca. The geoglyphs of the Atacama Desert were produced by either one of three techniques – ‘extractive’, ‘additive’, and ‘mixed’. The ‘extractive’ technique involves the removal of the top layer of soil on the hillside to create images on the surface. This is the more common of the two techniques. The ‘additive’ technique, on the other hand, involves the gathering of material, such as stones or gravel, and piling them on the surface of the ground to form a raised outline. The ‘mixed’ technique employs both the ‘extractive’ and the ‘additive’ techniques in the formation of the geoglyphs. Fortunately, these geoglyphs have survived the passage of time, due to the weather conditions of the Atacama Desert.
The Atacama geoglyphs come in many varied shapes and sizes. Credit: Gerhard Hüdepohl
The Atacama Giant is an anthropomorphic geoglyph situated on a hill known as the ‘Cerro Unitas’. Measuring 119 metres in height, the Atacama Giant is the largest known geoglyph in the world. IT is characterized by a square head and highly stylized long legs. Four lines can be seen coming out from the top of the giant’s head, as well as on each side of its head.
There has been no shortage of explanations and theories to account for the strange features of this enormous geoglyph. According to one interpretation, it was a sort of astronomical calendar that indicated the movement of the moon. With this knowledge, it is said that the day, the crop cycle, and the seasons could be calculated. Another interpretation maintains that the Atacama Giant represents a deity worshipped by the local population. Other theories suggest extra-terrestrial visitations, marking of a pilgrimage route, or that it reflects an ancient type of language .
To understand the function of the Atacama Giant, it is important to take into consideration its role in the surrounding landscape and its relationship with the other geoglyphs of the desert. It is plausible that the geoglyphs of the Atacama Desert did perform a ritual of symbolic function in the lives of those who created them. One theory, however, is that the geoglyphs of the Atacama Desert had a practical purpose, alongside this ritualistic one.
It has been suggested that the geoglyphs of the Atacama Desert played a crucial role in the transportation network connecting the great civilizations of South America. As llama caravans were important for the connection of the civilizations of South America, the geoglyphs of the Atacama Desert may have held vital information for the survival of these caravans in the world’s most arid desert. Thus, the geoglyphs may have indicated where salt flats, water sources and animal fodder could be found. Indeed, many of the geoglyphs represent llama caravans, and the caravans have also been reported by Spanish chroniclers. No caravan equipment, however, have been found in the desert itself, thus leaving the interpretation of the geoglyphs open to debate.
Llama geolyphs in the Atacama Desert ( visionconsciousness.org).