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Nazca Lines Theories: An Unsolved Archaeological Enigma in Peru

When we try to picture the History of Peru, the fabulous Inca Culture has so much panache that it is easy to forget that it was actually the last representative of a long list of civilizations. Several thousands of years ago, different civilizations were already flourishing in Peru. Some remains throughout the country have proven to be as old as the Pyramids of Egypt.

The Nazca (or Nasca) Culture is the one coming after the Chavin and Paracas Cultures, roughly between 100 BCE and 750 CE. This civilization developed in the desert coast of Peru, south of the capital city Lima. The climate is one of the aridest in the world, an extension of the Atacama, the world’s driest desert (in Chile).

This extreme drought explains the remarkable state of conservation of the Nasca and Paracas mummies and the Nasca Lines.

The Nazca Culture

Nazca Chauchilla
Nazca cemetery of Chauchilla – The hair is still present on the mummies.

Apart from the geoglyphs they drew in the desert (the “Nazca Lines”), the Nazca people are known for their mastery of ceramics and textiles, a skill inherited from the previous Paracas Culture. They mostly subsisted on agriculture, and they have built an extensive irrigation system that is still in use today!

One amazing fact is that the Nazca people were regularly practicing skull and brain surgery, as well as skull deformation. Mummies were found with a hole in their skull, with some thin new bone having grown all around.

That means that the hole was dug in the skull while the person was still alive, and the person actually survived the operation long enough for the skull to start healing. This operation is called trepanation or trephination. As for skull deformation, it was practiced during childhood to force the skull to develop in a particular shape. Such elongated skulls are thought to be a mark of social status.

The Nazca Lines: How and Why?

Nazca Lines
The Panamerican Highway crosses the desert of Nazca.

Disseminated throughout the desert, the geoglyphs of Nazca, commonly called the “Nazca Lines”, are the most impressive work left by the Nazca Civilization. The extreme drought and the lack of wind helped preserve the Lines during all these centuries.

The desert is literally covered with lines and geometrical figures, often crossing and covering each other as new lines get traced generation after generation. If these simple lines and figures are already quite impressive, the most astounding lines are the fantastic collection of stylized animals or other shapes that can be found all over the desert plateau.

What is particularly striking is the size of these figures, and above all the perfect respect for the proportions of the drawings. The lines were made by scratching the darker surface of the soil, uncovering a lighter soil underneath. The researchers have long been wondering how the Nazcas could draw such huge figures so perfectly.

The lines can only be fully appreciated from the sky. Thus, Historians assumed that the Nazca people should have been able to fly over the desert to plan and follow the drawing of the lines. They tried making a kind of hot air balloon only using materials that were available to the Nazcas, without much success even if they managed to make it take off.

It is now thought that they were using mathematical formulas and ropes to guide them and help them respect the proportions of their figures, from the ground. From 1940, Maria Reiche, a German mathematician, dedicated her life to the understanding and the interpretation of the lines. We owe her the names of the lines that are used today, such as “The Astronaut”, “The Dog” or the most famous one, “The Hummingbird”.

Nazca Lines
Nazca Lines – The Hummingbird.

The reason why the Nazca people created these geoglyphs is still a mystery. One theory says they were drawn for their gods, in the sky. According to Maria Reiche, the lines were an astronomical calendar, the main figures pointing towards equinoxes or solstice positions.

This might have helped with agriculture planning. It is also said to represent some constellations or some parts of the Milky Way. A theory dating from the 1980s states that the figures represent places where the gods can be worshiped in order to secure water supplies. It seems that the Nazca Lines is likely to keep several generations of Historians busy.

Other theories will probably arise, but they will remain theories. This site, on the UNESCO Heritage List since 1994, will presumably keep all its mystery. And it’s much more fascinating this way. Take a look at this photo gallery of the Nazca Desert and other Nazca Lines:

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