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Maria Reiche measuring the Nazca Lines.

Maria Reiche: The Governess of Nazca

Today, the birthday of the German lady who contributed greatly to our understanding of the famous Nazca Lines in Peru, is being marked by Google Doodle and others. Maria Reiche was a talented mathematician but she is most famous for her pioneering work on the ancient lines in the Peruvian desert. She was born 115 years ago on this day and her commitment to understanding and preserving the monumental stone designs was such that it dominated her life to the exclusion of all else.  So, how did this German lady become synonymous with the famed Nazca Lines?

Nazca Lines, Nazca, Peru ( CC BY SA 4.0 )

Nazca Lines, Nazca, Peru ( CC BY SA 4.0 )

The Nazca Lines

The Lines are one of the most famous Pre-Columbian sites in Latin America and are associated with the Nazca culture.  They are traced in the arid soil of the desert, covering an extensive area, some 450 km 2 (170 sq mi) and they are believed to be over 1,500 years old. The Lines portray images of various birds, plants and animals, such as the famous hummingbird and monkey, as well as expansive and elaborate geometric patterns.

The designs are best appreciated from high altitude, and this has added to their mystery, with many speculating as to how they were traced and what was their function. Maria Reiche dedicated a great deal of her life to pursuing answers to such questions. Not unrelated to the efforts of Maria, UNESCO has designated the Nazca Lines as a World Heritage Site. Her tremendous dedication has been noted and appreciated by the Peruvian nation, especially the town of Nazca who called her, “ Nazca’s Favourite Daughter ”.

In the 1980s a postage stamp bore her picture. In 1992 the Peruvian government granted her Peruvian nationality and in 1993 she was honored with the Medal of Merit, “Orden del Sol” in the degree of Great Cross by the Peruvian Prime Minister. In the same year, at the age of 90, she published her complete findings concerning the site in a book entitled, “ Contributions to Geometry and Astronomy in Ancient Peru”.

Stamp issued by Peru on June 17th, 1987 includes a photo of Maria Reiche. (Latinamericanstudies)

Stamp issued by Peru on June 17 th, 1987 includes a photo of Maria Reiche. ( Latinamericanstudies)

Maria Reiche and the Nazca Lines

Reiche was born in Dresden on May 15th, 1903 and was a brilliant mathematician as well as multilingual, speaking 5 languages. She travelled to Peru in the 1930s to work as a governess for the German consul, and she made it her home. She was a formidable lady – one time while exploring the Andes she injured a finger on a cactus, later losing it to gangrene, but undeterred she continued her explorations. Reiche became acquainted with the American researcher Paul Kosok and he took her to see the Nazca site, on a desolate plain, some 250 miles from Lima. The Nazca Lines had only been discovered some ten years earlier by the Peruvian archaeologist Toribio Mejia Xesspe.

From the moment she was introduced to the Lines she began to investigate them extensively and their study and preservation became her life’s mission. In the early years of her study of the area, Reiche used her mathematical training to scientifically measure all the Lines, for the first time. According to the Independent, she described the Nazca Lines as "a huge blackboard where giant hands have drawn clear and precise geometric designs". 

A map of the Nazca lines, showing all the figures, as well as the Panamerican Highway crossing the area. (CC BY NC SA 2.0)

A map of the Nazca lines, showing all the figures, as well as the Panamerican Highway crossing the area. ( CC BY NC SA 2.0 )

Reiche’s Theory of the Lines

Reiche theorized that those who conceived of the Lines used them as an astronomical calendar which she outlined in her book The Mystery of the Pampas (1949). This theory is not widely accepted today, and most experts believe that the lines were used as paths that were traversed during ceremonies. However, Maria Reiche was responsible for comprehensively mapping a great deal of the Lines.

Maria Reiche, Wax statue in the Museum dedicated to her near Nazca, Peru. (CC BY 3.0)

Maria Reiche, Wax statue in the Museum dedicated to her near Nazca, Peru. ( CC BY 3.0 )

Clearly a forceful personality, she was able to persuade or cajole the Peruvian Air Force to help in the systematic mapping of the historic area. In her lifetime, Reiche established that the figures included 18 different animals and birds and hundreds of geometric shapes and patterns. However, more were yet to be found , and surely more remain obscured by the elements to this day.

The rediscovered orca geoglyph lies on a desert hillside in the remote Palpa region of southern Peru. (Image: Johny Isla)

The rediscovered orca geoglyph lies on a desert hillside in the remote Palpa region of southern Peru. (Image: Johny Isla)

This woman was devoted to the Lines and acted as their unofficial guardian for many years even into her old age. She was very aware of how vulnerable the Lines were, and she defended them from intruders and vehicles, armed only with a household broom. Reiche was so committed that she would often camp out alone in the desert to protect the Lines. Such protection was indeed warranted, as is evidenced by the Greenpeace invasion of the hummingbird site in 2014 and the damage caused earlier this year by a truckdriver plowing his vehicle into one of the protected sites. The Peruvian government restricts visitors to Nazca in an attempt to protect the lines.

Image shows the level of damage caused by the truck driving into the protected archaeological site. (Image: Peruvian Ministry of Culture)

Image shows the level of damage caused by the truck driving into the protected archaeological site. (Image: Peruvian Ministry of Culture)

The insightful lady was also active in fundraising for the preservation of the Nazca Lines at a time when their importance was not generally accepted.

Lasting Legacy

Reiche became known, according to the Daily Mirror as the “Lady of the Lines.” Following her death due to cancer in 1998, at the age of 95, she was buried close to her beloved Nazca, alongside her sister. The commitment of the foreigner to the heritage of Peru made her a celebrity in the country. In 1992 she was made a citizen of Peru and the Nazca airport is named in her honor. Her work is still helping the Peruvian government to preserve the Lines, and this is Reiche’s greatest and abiding achievement.

Top image: Maria Reiche measuring the Nazca Lines. Source: Latinamericanstudies

By Ed Whelan

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