The Mystery of the Nazca Lines

by Rachel Baar

Many times when humans study history, we project the values and ideas of the present onto the creations of the past. Neither religion nor science has been able to answer the questions that we have about our origins or our future, so we look for the answers in cultures that preceded us. In doing so, we assume that they were seeking answers to the same questions that we have. If we can create a link to the past, it seems like we should be able to uncover our history and predict our future. This is the situation that surrounds the study of the Nazca lines.

To understand the lines we need to consider the environment of the Nazca. In the desert terrain between northern Chile and southern Peru, there are rough tablelands carved by deep, lush gorges that connect the Andes with the coast. One of these gorges was home to the Nazca people 1500-2000 years ago. In between the valley strips lie elevated dry plains called "pampas"-- deserts where there is little wind and it only rains once every several years, conditions ideal for preserving the huge line drawings. The "Nazca lines" is the name given to the huge lines, trapezoids and animal figures that are etched into kilometer after kilometer of this plain. The pampa was originally covered with black, wind-smoothed rock -- the lines were created by removing these black-colored rock fragments and topsoil to reveal the light-colored sand underneath.

Possible Explanations of the Lines

Since the 1920s, when the first flight of people flew over southern Peru and noticed lines etched into the desert, archaeologist and others have been attempting to understand why and how these lines were formed. The theories, while ranging from spacecraft landing strips to population control systems, all seem to have one thing in common, they are narrow-minded and culture-blind. These popular descriptions looked for a single, causal purpose of the lines: those of astronomy, geometry, agriculture and irrigation, roads, and art. Recently, Anthony Aveni and others have proposed a new theory, one based on cultural as well as archaeological studies. It combines the relative and seemingly correct portions of the five earlier theories with cultural knowledge in order to reflect the multifaceted uses and purposes of the lines in a background of Nazca (not present-day) culture.

Since these lines were noticed some seventy years ago, many explanations have been created. The earliest and most imaginative of these theories, while not widely held to be true, play a small part in the creation of today's prevalent theories. In 1980, G. von Breunig suggested that the lines were used for running footraces. He examined the curved pathways and determined that they were partially shaped by continuous running. He evolved this thesis into a scenario in which local races led up to national events in which the runners had distinguishing team outfits, supposedly depicted on Nazca pottery. A second innovative purpose for the Nazca lines was theorized by William H. Isbell in 1978. He created an analogy between the work gangs that created pyramids in Peru and the creation of the Nazca lines because both occurred at the same time The Nazca society organized work gangs as a "social mechanism for investing unpredictable surpluses in ceremonial activities" in order to regulate population. The final pseudoscientific theory was proposed by E. von Daniken and is an example of today's society being forced upon that of the Nazca. He thought that the Nazca lines were runways upon which aliens landed their spacecraft and that Nazca masks depicted the faces of these aliens. These explanations are only a few of the pseudoscientific theories about the Nazca lines. They were created to entertain today's culture, not to explain or understand a history of the Nazcas.

The importance of these theories lies not in their explanations, but in their ideas. A lot of these basic ideas sparked the scientific and archaeological studies that led to the five most prevalent scientific theories.

The first of these five theories is based on the possible connection between the lines and astronomy. Paul Kosok, an archaeologist, was studying the Nazca lines and noticed that one night at sunset, the sun shone directly down the path of one line. The day happened to be the winter solstice, and the connection between the Nazca lines and astronomy was made. Kosok theorized that all of the lines replicated points on the horizon where astronomical objects set and rose on important days. Instead of undertaking a systematic survey of the lines, however, Kosok drew evidence from the social developments that he thought had happened during the Nazca time period. He attributed the creation of the lines to a "power-hungry astronomer-priest whose knowledge included the lines" and who used them as a form of rigid social control. This "priest" is totally unlike any political authority of the coastal people. Other astronomers then attempted to associate the animal figures with star constellations. Unfortunately, they worked without any criteria as to how close the position and likeness of the depiction were to the actual constellation and without any knowledge of whether the Nazca culture even recognized the constellations they were observing. At a later time, G. Hawkins, an astronomer who had worked on the astronomical relationships at Stonehenge, attempted to do the same with this astronomical theory. He looked for any cosmological object that rose or set near a line. While his study was more scientific than the first two (because it included actual measurements and observations), he fell into the same culture-blind trap. The astronomical phenomena that he related to the lines were objects obvious only to a northern latitude observer and the dates that he picked were not necessarily important to an Andean observer. All of the studies of possible astronomical relationships in the Nazca lines have simplistic character that ignores the complex culture of the Andean people. Instead of finding out which astronomical dates were important to the Andeans and then seeing if those dates have astronomical relationships, they ask only, "Do the lines point to astronomical phenomena or not?"

These generalizations are apparent again in the second theory. According to this theory, the lines were supposedly produced as a "cerebral exercise" and reflect a knowledge of geometry that can be seen in the precision of their execution and existence of units of measurement within their proportions. Maria Reiche was the major proponent of this theory, and to prove it she studied the lengths and angles of the figures in the desert. There were, however, problems with the details of her study. She did not examine all of the figures, or even a general sampling of them. She found three different "units of measurement"--32.6 meters, 26.7 meters, and 32.5 centimeters. While one measurement, if repeated, might be important, the repetition of three such unrelated numbers only discredits all of them. More importantly, the basis of her observation, the Nazca "knowledge of geometry" was not necessarily to construct these figures. This was proved by a 1981 Earthwatch field study in which a group created their own "Nazca line." Using a few people, two sticks, and a string, the Earthwatch group created a line similar to a spiral on the northern pampa. They made the lines straight and the curves even by using naked eye approximations and did not need the geometrical prowess or the large labor force that Reiche proposed.

Do the Lines Have a Practical Purpose?

The third theory is based upon qualities more directly linked to the Nazcas than geometry -- those of agriculture and irrigation. Water is the most important resource in Andean life and the seasonal and long-term variations have a direct effect on them. Underneath the pampa lie subterranean aqueducts and underground wells; in this theory, the placement of these canals is reflected in the placement of the lines. According to Aveni, "most of the line centers are located along the river banks, tributaries, and bases of the mountains from where the drainage proceeds" and the division of the water rights is a reason for local people to trek across the pampa. This theory defines a purpose for the lines and gives a reasonable explanation of who created them. But it still cannot explain the animal and trapezoid shapes, and it does not define the exact relationship between the lines and water.

The next theory goes beyond the relationship between nature and the lines to define a relationship between the lines and humans. The similarities between the Nazca lines and pre-Inca roads -- the straightness, the random piles of debris, the trapezoidal widenings, and the pairs of parallel features -- led to the theory that the lines were created to be walked upon. this amplified the fact that "roads were of considerable importance in ancient Peru and they extended all over." This explains a possible purpose of the lines and trapezoids, but, like the agricultural theory, does nothing to explain the animal figures. It also does not explain the purpose or possible significance of the walking. One possible purpose of walking on the lines could have been an attempt to feel their power. In this way the lines may have been some sort of art form. The figures seem to fit perfectly into the space that contains them, as if the artist saw the figure in the rock and then just uncovered what was already there. The problem with viewing the Nazca lines as art is that to see them we are taking an aerial view. The view of this "art" from an airplane is not the way the Nazcas ever intended their figures to be viewed. This view -- the eyes through which today's society is viewing the Nazca lines--is the basic problem with all of the above theories. They see the Nazca lines as reflections of today's ideas and society and they do not take the culture of the Nazca into account. The other problem is their general narrow-mindedness. All of the theories concentrate on finding one single cause, and assume one single time period. Anthony Aveni, along with Persis B. Clarkson, Gary Urton, and Helaine Silverman, has attempted to correct these problems. Together they have created today's most widely accepted theory by combining archaeology, astronomy, sociology and the best of the above theories in order to explain the Nazca lines.

The field work for this theory encompassed a broad range of resources. They used aerial photos from the Servicio Aerofotografio Nacional and took the astronomical measurements of all the lines. They also used a "ground-based strategy" in order to perceive the subtle details in the same way that the Nazca did when they were building them. Their work was complicated by the absence of pre-Columbian written texts and so they argue by analogy with other Andean cultures. These methods are used to develop a theory which unifies the many purposes of the lines.

The first element of this theory is that of the lines as a pathway. It complies completely with the theory mentioned above but does not limit the purpose of the lines to roadways. In fact, it links walking with the expression of art. Ritual walking along "straight, predetermined routes" has been documented among many pre-Incan groups. The lines seem to reflect more of the Andean ceque system than ritual walking. The ceque system was used by Andeans to organize their city--from the center of the city, 41 straight line ceques radiated out, each line being marked by several buildings and landscape features, called huacas.

Each ceque had a different social class that attended to it in a sort of "hierarchy of worship." The placement of ceques gave information about various kin groups, the relationship among the groups, and the organization of ritual and work activity. The ceque system was "the most dominating feature present in the physical and built landscape that denotes concepts of order and organization." In this way, the ceque system unifies ideas about religion, social organization, water, calendar, and astronomy. It is apparent that the line centers formed on the pampa, identical in shape to the ceques, could also have served similar, multifaceted purposes.

Astronomy was a part of this purpose. Some of the ceques were related to astronomy -- they lined up with the sunrise and sunset on the first day of planting season and winter and summer solstices and marked the rising of the Pleiades and the celestial llama. These same important days, accompanied by days important specifically to the Nazca (especially the solar zenith passages and the dates of pampa water flow), are reflected in the placement of some lines within the line centers. Astronomical planning was not a general part of all centers, but in fact seems to be concentrated in one or two specific line centers. Almost all of the lines in a line center located on the northeastern corner of the pampa are astronomically related. While this explains why astronomy only plays a part in some of the Nazca lines, it leaves the purposes of the remaining lines unknown. The most probable explanation lies in the Nazca relationship to water and irrigation. The placement of the line centers has to do with the locations of mountains and surface waters. With few exceptions, the centers are located at the bases of hills surrounding the pampa and along the place where the pampa borders the "principal river valleys and tributaries." Many line centers were alongside or within view of these tributaries and all of them were related to the Nazca river drainage. Often a line becomes a trapezoid a long way from the center -- these trapezoids are always situated on the elevated land between the dry irrigation canals (quebradas) and are parallel to the direction of flow of water. part of the study focused on determining the orientation and flow of each line's nearest quebrada. Aveni used aerial photographs to measure the width, length and placement of the quebradas. He then found the angle between the axis of the geometric figure and the direction of the flow of the water and the result reflected the tie between water and the Nazca lines. Within a five degree error, 60% pointed upstream and 40% pointed downstream. It is obvious that the placement of the trapezoids was not just a matter of convenience to fit in with land contours -- it was a reflection of the importance of water in Nazca life.

The importance of water is directly back to the ceque system and astronomy. The terminal huacas of many ceques lay at positions where the water flow changed directions. Many rituals associated with the ceque system stress the relationship between people and water. And since the "lines were almost surely walked upon (recall that many have footpaths within) and that the act of walking may have been associated with the water flow because the lines began and ended at centers that were located at significant points on the pampa with respect to the passage of water over it." It is clear that the purpose of the Nazca lines combined the importance of water and astronomy in Nazca life with the ceque system and other rituals.

But the biomorphic figures -- the spiders, birds and other animals -- do not seem to reflect these same values. Almost all of the figures are located on about 5% of the northwest corner of the pampa and are built on an entirely different scale from the lines. Ceramic data actually places the biomorphic figures about a thousand years before the dates of the lines. The animals do not align in the same directions of the geometrical figures and not a single line leads to or terminates within the drawing of an animal. The biomorphs seem to be from an earlier and more localized tradition, likely engaged in by people who lived in the area of that small corner.

As Helaine Silverman states in her article, "The study of the lines as undifferentiated features devoid of sequence has flawed several interpretations." This seems to be just one manifestation of the basic problem with the theories made about the Nazca lines. Many researchers seem to have a single-mindedness -- they view the Nazca as a culture like our own, with the same values, the same ideas, and the same desires. In doing so, they create culturally blind theories. They look for a single purpose for the lines created by single-dimensional people in a single time period. Anthony Aveni and others have recently tried to combine all of the previous theories into a multi-faceted, multipurposeful explanation for the Nazca lines. The lines are an integration of the roles that astronomy, water, ritual and the ceque system played in the lives of the Nazcas. They reflect the beliefs and ideas of a bygone culture and leave behind a story that we can understand only if we view it through Nazca eyes.

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