What are the Nazca Lines?

Giant hummingbird - courtesy kudumomo - CC-BY

Giant hummingbird - courtesy kudumomo - CC-BY

Stretching across the Nazca plains like a giant map left by ancient astronauts, are the famous Nazca Lines of Peru. The drawings as well as their meaning are even more mysterious than their origin. It is not known how long it took to create them, nor how the creators were able to measure them with such perfection, since there were no aircraft then.

Nobody knows for sure who built them or why, though there is strong evidence of a “Nazca” civilization. Since their discovery, the Nazca Lines have inspired fantastic accounts of ancient gods, a landing strip for returning aliens, or a celestial calendar created by the ancient Nazca civilization. They cover nearly 400 square miles, etched in the surface of the desert are about 300 hundred figures made of straight lines, geometric shapes most clearly visible from the air. The concentration and positioning of the lines and drawings leave no doubt that they required intensive long-term labor.

There are various designs consisting of figures of animals, flowers and plants, objects, and anthropomorphic figures of colossal proportions made with well-defined lines. One example is the drawing of a weird being with two enormous hands, one normal and the other with only four fingers. Other representations include drawings of man-made objects such as yarn, looms and “tupus” (ornamental clasps). All these figures have well defined entrances which could be used as paths. The lines are many miles long and crisscross sectors of the desert in all directions. The Lines were made by removing the iron-oxide coated pebbles which cover the surface of the desert. When the gravel is removed, it contrasts with the light color underneath and the lines were drawn as furrows of a lighter color.

During recent years the Nazca Lines have suffered gradual destruction, as treasure seekers looking for pre-Inca artifacts scar the terrain with hundreds of burrows, garbage, and other waste material. A boom in copper and gold mining, which includes a mine built in 1997 a few feet from a 2,000-year-old, two-mile-long trapezoid, is defacing parts of the Nazca Lines with tracks from truck traffic.  It is possible to fly over the Nazca lines from Lima and return the same day.

South of the Nazca Lines, archaeologists have uncovered what may be the lost city of the line-builders, Cahuachi. It was thriving nearly two thousand years ago and was abandoned 500 years later. New discoveries at Cahuachi are perhaps at last beginning to give us insight into the Nazca people and to unravel the mystery of the Nazca Lines.

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