The Enigmatic Nazca Lines of Peru
Located in the arid Peruvian coastal plain, some 400 km south of Lima, the geoglyphs of Nazca cover an incredible 450 km 2. They are among archaeology's greatest enigmas because of their quantity, nature, size and continuity. The geoglyphs depict living creatures, stylized plants and imaginary beings, as well as geometric figures several kilometres long. The startling feature of the Nazca geoglyphs is that they can only really be appreciated from the air, raising questions about how and why they were created.
The Nazca lines number in their thousands and the vast majority of them date from 200 BC to 500 AD, to a time when a people referred to as the Nazca inhabited the region. The earliest lines, created with piled up stones, date as far back as 500 BC. The Nazca people were an ancient prehistoric culture that was successful in using engineering techniques to bring underground water to the surface for irrigation. However, little is known about this pre-Incan culture as they left no written record.
The lines were made by scraping away the reddish, iron oxide covered stones that cover the desert surface to reveal the white sand beneath. In most places wind, rain and erosion would quickly remove all traces of this within a few years. At Nazca, though, the lines have been preserved because it is such a windless, dry and isolated location.
Although these perplexing lines were first discovered by a Peruvian archaeologist, Toribio Mejia Xesspe, in 1927 when he stumbled across them on foot, it was not until the 1930s when air traffic in the area increased that the lines became widely known.
Although the lines can in fact be seen from the ground, there is nothing remotely exciting about seeing them from this perspective. However, from the air, their true beauty and the wonders of their creation can be realised.
The figures come in two types: biomorphs and geoglyphs. The biomorphs include around 70 animal and plant figures that include a spider, hummingbird, monkey and a 1,000-foot-long pelican. They are grouped together in one area on the plain and archaeologists believe they were constructed about 500 years before the geoglyphs. There are about 900 geoglyphs on the plain. Geoglyphs are geometric forms that include straight lines, triangles, spirals, circles and trapezoids. They are enormous in size. The longest straight line stretches and incredible nine miles across the plain.
Why were they created?
Despite a plethora of research on these amazing creations, the purpose of the lines continues to elude researchers and remains a matter of conjecture. Some scientists believe they are linked to the heavens with some representing constellations in the night sky. However, research has found that there are just as many lines not related to constellations as those that are, meaning that this theory cannot provide a complete explanation.
Other experts believe that the lines played a role in pilgrimage, with one walking across them to reach a sacred place such as Cahuachi and its adobe pyramids. Yet another idea is that the lines are connected with water, something vital to life yet hard to get in the desert, and may have played a part in water-based rituals. However, the fact the lines have remained enigmatic have promoted alternative theorists to float ideas about extraterrestrial communication or ‘messages to the gods’.
UNESCO succinctly conveyed the wonder of this ancient place when they said: “The Nazca lines and geoglyphs form a unique and magnificent artistic achievement that is unrivalled in its dimensions and diversity anywhere in the prehistoric world. This unique form of land use bears exceptional witness to the culture and beliefs of this region of pre-Hispanic South America.”