The Lines are undoubtedly one of the world’s biggest archeological mysteries and bring many thousands of visitors every year to Peru’s south coast. Theories abound as to their purpose and creation.
The greatest expert on these mammoth desert designs was Maria Reiche, who escaped from Nazi Germany to Peru in the 1930s and worked at Nasca almost continuously from 1946 until her death in 1998. Standing on the shoulders of US scientist Paul Kosok, a colleague of hers, she believed that the Lines were an astronomical calendar linked to the rising and setting points of celestial bodies on the east and west horizons. The whole complex, according to her theory, was designed to help organize planting and harvesting around seasonal changes rather than the fickle shifts of weather. When certain stars lined up with specific lines, shapes or animals, it would signal a time for planting, the coming of the rains, the beginning or end of summer, the growing season or the time for harvesting. It also gave the elite high priests, who possessed this knowledge, a large element of control over the actions of the populace. In a desert area like Nasca, where the coastal fog never reaches up to obscure the night sky over the pampa, there was a strong emphasis on relating earthly matters to the movements of the heavens and on knowledge of the night skies and how they relate to nature’s cycles. Reiche’s theories, after sixty years of research, are thought to have established some alignments, many of which were confirmed by the computer analysis (particularly those for the solar solstices) of astronomer Gerald Hawkins (world famous for “decoding” Stonehenge in England), who himself spent much of the 1960s working on the Nasca Lines. Much, however, was left unexplained, and this has allowed more recent theorists to fill out the picture.
Theories of rituals
Regarding social aspects of the Lines, Toribio Mejía Xesspe, a Peruvian archeologist, actually “discovered” the site in 1927 and believed that they were made for walking or dancing along, probably for ritual purposes. The archeologist Johan Reinhard, meanwhile, has drawn on present-day anthropological studies from the Peruvian Andes to understand the meaning of similar lines today. His research has shown how mountain people still worship mountains and river sources as important gods.
In 2000, Dr Anthony Aveni, a leading archeoastronomer, agreed that at least some of the Nasca Lines were pathways meant to be walked in rituals, perhaps consciousness-changing like labyrinths, but also relating to the acquisition of water. A statistically significant number of the Lines point towards a section of the horizon where the sun used to rise at the beginning of the rainy season, suggesting that perhaps they were created to help worship or invoke their gods, particularly those related to rain. According to Aveni, air and ground surveys revealed that “most of the straight lines on the pampa are tied to water sources”. This certainly fits the anthropological evidence from annual Andean pilgrimages which continue to this day in some parts of Peru.
It’s in the water
In 2003, David Johnson (University of Massachusetts) put forward evidence that the ancient Nascans mapped the desert to mark the surface where aquifers appeared. His work suggested that large underground rivers run under the pampa and many of the figures are connected to this, in some ways creating a giant map of what’s happening under the earth. Zigzag lines are linked to a lack of underground water, while trapezoids point towards the source of it. Archeological research also suggests that Nasca experienced a serious drought around 550 AD, at the same time as the ancient Nasca’s main ceremonial centre – Cahuachi – was abandoned on the plain, and more or less contemporaneous with the construction of the trapezoid spaces where evidence of ritual offerings has been found.
Further thoughts about why the lines and figures were drawn by the ancient Nasca include the concept of shamanic flight or out-of-the-body experience, with the symbolic “flight path” already mapped out across the region. Such an experience is induced by some of the “teacher plants”, such as the mescaline cactus San Pedro, which are still used by traditional healers in Peru. Visually, there are clear links and similarities between the animal figures found on the plain and those elaborately painted onto Nasca’s fine pre-Inca ceramics. Animal totems or spirit helpers are commonly used, even today, by traditional Peruvian healers to communicate with the “other world”.
Most of the above theories are fairly compatible; taken together, they form a matrix of interrelated explanations – agro-astonomical, environmental, spiritual and ritual. However, just how the ancient Nasca people ever constructed the Lines is possibly the biggest mystery of all – not least since they can’t even be seen from the ground. In the early 1970s the populist writer Erich von Däniken claimed that the Lines were built as runways for alien space ships. Less controversially, perhaps, in the 1980s a local school in Nasca tried building its own line and from its efforts calculated that a thousand patient and inspired workers could have made them all in less than a month.