As you fly over the high desert of Southern Peru, distinct white lines and shapes start to form into geometric designs: giant trapezoids and triangles, straight lines and swirls. Some of the swirls and zigzags form into shapes of animals – a giant hummingbird, a spider, a monkey. These are the ancient, baffling Nazca Lines, one of South America’s great enigmas – in fact one of the world’s biggest archaeological mysteries.
Despite being there for two or three thousand years, the Nazca Lines only came into public consciousness in the 1930s. That’s because they’re virtually impossible to identify from ground level, and we had to wait until the advent of flight to become aware of these extraordinary creations. In total there are over 800 straight lines, 300 geometric figures and 70 animal and plant designs (also called “biomorphs”). Some of the straight lines run up to 30 miles, while the biomorphs can be up to 1200 feet long. That’s why they can really only be appreciated from the air.
What do they mean?
Theories around their purpose and origin are as varied as the patterns themselves, and some people have devoted their lives to studying them. Most famous among them is the German scientist Dr Maria Reiche, who followed in the footsteps of American professor Paul Kosok from the 1940s until her death in 1998. She believed that the Lines were an astronomical calendar, designed to help organise planting and harvesting around seasonal changes rather than the fickle shifts of the weather. When certain stars and specific lines or shapes were in alignment, it would signal a time for planting, the coming of the rains, the beginning or end of summer, the season for growing or the time for harvesting. Some of these theories have been substantiated by a computer analysis run by astronomer Gerald Hawkins, famous for “decoding” Stonehenge. But then again, others have come along to challenge these ideas and propose new theories, some relating to rituals around water and ground fertility. This would seem to make sense for an arid area that receives less than an inch of rainfall in a year! On the other hand, you might buy into the ideas of the populist writer Erich von Daniken from the 1970s, who claimed that that the Lines were built as runways for alien space ships. As the saying goes, “you pays your money and you takes your choice”! We’ll probably never know the precise answer but one thing is for sure: people will never stop asking the question. And possibly the biggest mystery of all is not why the Lines were constructed, but how? We know the actual markings were created by removing the top layer of rust coloured rock to expose a contrasting light-coloured sand below. But how on earth did they complete designs which are so big they can’t even be seen from the ground?
You’ll find yourself pondering such questions on your 25-minute flight giving you a bird’s eye view of the intricate and mysterious etchings of the Nazca Lines.