View Other Topics

Startling New Discovery Deepens The Mystery Of The Nazca Lines

Feb 10, 2020

Image: Nazca hummingbird -
Japanese researchers are minutely scrutinizing photographs of an iconic World Heritage Site, the Nazca Lines in Peru according to These massive land drawings have intrigued and puzzled experts for decades. But these scientists are on the brink of a startling reinterpretation of some of them. And their findings upset existing theories about the purpose of the vast symbols.
The Nazca Lines are set on a desert plateau in southern Peru, some 250 miles from the country’s capital, Lima. The plateau extends for around 50 miles between the towns of Palpa and Nazca. And the most famous of the Nazca images appear in an area measuring about six by two miles, near the village of San Miguel de la Pascana.
These lines are actually called geoglyphs. A geoglyph is a large image drawn into the land by moving surface stones to create an outline. In the case of the Nazca Lines, the red-hued pebbles that form the surface layer of the desert have been scraped aside to reveal the lighter colored clay that lies beneath.
Many of the Nazca geoglyphs are simply lines or shapes which run across the desert surface. And the best-known are actually figurative images representing various animals and plants. Indeed, they include drawings of some 70 different creatures, such as a monkey, a spider and a jaguar. There is also a variety of different birds.
The Japanese researchers focused on 16 bird images found among a total of 2,000 geoglyphs. Significantly, the scientists examined the drawings with a fresh perspective. Indeed, they looked at them through the eyes of an ornithologist, an avian expert. And this approach came up with some fascinating conclusions, which we’ll detail a little later.
For now, though, let’s look in greater depth at these amazing geoglyphs, created by the ancient Nazca people. A pre-Incan civilization, they lasted from around 2,000 to 1,200 years ago and lived near Peru’s Pacific coast, in the network of valleys associated with the Rio Grande de Nazca.
As well as the geoglyphs, the Nazca culture also produced a range of artifacts, such as multicolored pottery objects and elaborate textiles. The sophistication of their crafts even included the ability to glaze their ceramics with up to 15 different colors. Indeed, among the amazing Nazcan finds are pots with twin spouts and exquisite lobster effigies.
Nazca textiles were woven from wool and cotton and included clothing such as tunics, shawls and dresses. They decorated these fabrics with images of fish, two-headed snakes and birds. And some garments, presumably worn by high-status individuals, included elaborate embroidery and feathers. The culture also ritually buried their dead wrapped in shrouds.
Early Nazca society consisted of a variety of different chiefdoms with an important cultural center at a site called Cahuachi. A place for ritual and ceremony, this location has been extensively excavated, and consists of earthworks and open squares. Experts theorize that the Nazca used this particular location for ceremonies connected to farming, fertility and water.
As the era of the Nazca rolled on, Cahuachi was abandoned, perhaps due to drought. Their society continued, but without those ritual sites. Religion, though, seems to have played an important part in cultural life, with gods represented in art by mythical beasts. These were likely also associated with fertility and agriculture.
In an environment where drought was all too common, it’s hardly a surprise that the Nazca apparently focused their beliefs on supernatural forces effecting water and fertility. Shamans or priests led religious life and may well have made use of hallucinogenic narcotics extracted from cacti. The resulting drugs probably helped them experience visions.
A rather more gruesome feature of Nazca culture, however, has long puzzled researchers. Portrayals of human beheading frequently appear in both the textiles and ceramics of the period. Indeed, many burials unearthed skeletons separated from their skulls. Whether these decapitations were to provide warriors with trophies or were part of ceremonial rites, though, is open to question.
Indeed, one German archaeologist, Max Uhle, came up with the term “trophy head” in the early 20th century. And, it seems that these skulls all have one identifying feature – holes drilled into the forehead. Why? Well, a rope could then be threaded through the opening, allowing the skulls to, perhaps, be carried like talismans.
And archaeologists also discovered graves in the area which are termed partial burials. That simply means that the tomb contains incomplete skeletons. Such locations include piles of skulls and an assortments of limbs. And some even have a skeleton with the skull missing, replaced with a “head jar.”
A head jar is a ceramic pot decorated with human features. The pots sometimes also have representations of trees and other greenery growing from them. The precise meaning of these macabre artifacts, however, eludes researchers to this day. It’s even thought that decapitating humans may have increased the status of important Nazca chiefs.
Indeed, the Nazca seem to have had a thing about human heads. Intriguingly, researchers also discovered strangely misshapen skulls among excavated remains. The craniums were elongated during life, presumably for some ritualistic purpose. And they achieved this distortion by changing the shape of the head during childhood with the use of boards. What purpose this served, however, remains a mystery.
Then there was the practice of trephination. This is the process of drilling a hole through the skull of a live human. And it may have been done as a medical procedure to relieve pressure on the skull, possibly caused by wounds sustained in battle. On the other hand, the technique may have formed part of a ritual ceremony. We do know, though, that some survived the ordeal as some wounds show indications of healing around them.
When it came to Nazcan livelihoods, they existed by subsistence farming. Judging by the images on their ceramics, they grew crops such as sweet potato, squash, maize and manioc. In addition, they farmed cotton for textiles and San Pedro cactus for narcotics. Meat, on the other hand, came from llamas.
Archaeologists have also discovered evidence of a sophisticated aqueduct system built by the Nazca. These subterranean channels, or puquios, fed underground water out to an irrigation network or even to storage tanks. In fact, some of those same water courses are still in use today, albeit with the addition of powered pumps.
We’ve already seen that the Nazca were highly skilled in arts and crafts, notably in the production of sophisticated ceramics and textiles. But undoubtedly they are best known for the huge geoglyphs that they etched across the surface of the Nazca Desert.In fact, they were given United Nations World Heritage Site status in 1994.
The Nazca made the lines by scraping away around six inches of the desert’s surface stones which have a red-brown, rusty color caused by a layer of iron oxide. Beneath the pebbles is clay of a lighter shade, which shows up as a pale line with a yellowish color. Incredibly, the geoglyphs depicting flora and fauna vary in size from about 1,000 to 3,700 feet across.
Luckily, the prevailing climatic conditions of the Nazca Desert created an almost perfect environment for the geoglyphs. On average, rain falls there for just 20 minutes each year. In addition, there’s also very little wind to erode the lines. Thanks to this particular micro climate, then, the images have remained extraordinarily well preserved over the centuries.
In fact, the first written report we have of the lines dates back to 1553. Indeed, Pedro Cieza de León, a Spanish conquistador, mentioned them in his account of traveling in South America, Crónicas del Perú. De León, though, thought he had merely stumbled across a collection of waypoints. The first modern archaeologist to note the geoglyphs was a Peruvian, Toribio Mejía Xesspe, over three centuries later, in 1927.
Xesspe spotted the lines from nearby foothills, but it wasn’t until the 1930s, when planes started to cross the Nazca desert, that the full extent of these unique geoglyphs was recognized. Indeed, to get the full impact of the images, seeing them from above is necessary. And commercial flights across the region revealed them in all their splendor.
It was in 1940 that American historian, Paul Kosok of Long Island University, made the first intensive study of the geoglyphs. He had actually traveled to Nazca to study the aqueduct system there. But flying across the lines, he spotted that one of the patterns below him was actually shaped like a bird.
Later, and purely by chance, Kosok was at the end of one of the Nazca Lines around 24 hours after South America’s Winter Solstice. He noticed that the line he was on aligned perfectly with the sunset that day. This led him to theorize on the purpose of the lines. Indeed, a National Geographic magazine article later quoted the historian’s thoughts.
Kosok believed the geoglyphs, spread out over some 310 square miles, make up “the largest astronomy book in the world.” The historian was then joined in his research by German mathematician Maria Reiche and Richard P. Schaedel, an American archaeologist. Together, the three of them developed the idea that the lines were associated with the stars.
Reiche seems to have fallen entirely under the spell of these enigmatic geoglyphs. She spent some 40 years studying them, even winning a grant from National Geographic magazine to support her work. What’s more, she moved to a house near the images so that she could protect the priceless artifacts from any possibility of damage.
Other, perhaps, more eccentric, minds have also turned their attention to deciphering the meaning of the lines. One such psyche was Eric von Däniken. In his best-selling 1969 book, Chariots of the Gods?, he claimed that the geoglyphs were the work of extraterrestrials. According to author, aliens had actually laid down landing strips for spacecraft.
Serious scientists gave van Däniken’s theory short shrift. The success of his book, though, created a boost in tourism to the area. This, in turn, created the very situation that Reiche wanted to protect the site from. However, like the author, she, too, looked to the heavens for an explanation of the lines, theorizing that at least some of them represented constellations.
As the 20th century went on, there was no shortage of experts proposing theories about the purpose of the geoglyphs. In 1977, for example, Alberto Rossell Castro suggested some lines connected mounds, while others were associated with irrigation, and yet more had astronomical significance. A less likely theory of his was that the images were outlines for enormous weaving looms.
Other researchers believed the lines had religious significance and somehow connected to the patterns on Nazca textiles and ceramics. Another common interpretation was that the lines had something to do with the culture’s irrigation system. Meanwhile, some experts cast doubt on the astronomical explanation favored by Kosok and Reiche. The debate raged on.
But the truth is we aren’t really any closer to understanding what the Nazca were up to in creating these elaborate motifs. And that brings us back to the latest team of experts to turn their minds to this complex conundrum. And they’re the Japanese researchers we met earlier.
Three scientists, Yamashina Institute for Ornithology’s Takeshi Yamasaki, Hokkaido University Museum’s Masaki Eda and Yamagata University’s Masato Sakai concentrated their minds on the 16 geoglyphs that represent various types of birds. Eda later explained the thinking behind their approach in a press release issued by Hokkaido University in June 2019.
“Until now, the birds in these drawings have been identified based on general impressions or a few morphological traits present in each figure,” Eda said. “We closely noted the shapes and relative sizes of the birds’ beaks, heads, necks, bodies, wings, tails and feet and compared them with those of modern birds in Peru.”
And in closely examining the bird geoglyphs, the researchers have overturned some assumptions about them. Indeed, one of the most famous of the Nazca images is the hummingbird. But Eda and his team believe this is actually a representation of long-tailed hermit, which today lives in northern Peru, far from the Nazca desert.
And the Japanese team also identified the species of another two avian geoglyphs. One image, which researchers had formerly identified as an infant duck, is actually a baby parrot, according to the researchers. These parrots live in tropical jungles, and, again, their habitat is a long way from Nazca.
And then there’s the image scientists believed to be a guano bird, until the work of the Japanese experts. Indeed, there are three types of bird that live on Peru’s coast classified under the umbrella name guano bird. Eda and his colleagues now believe that the geoglyph is specifically of a pelican.
However, none of these three bird species live in the Nazca region. So why do they appear in the geoglyph collection? Speaking to Newsweek, Eda said, “If exotic/non local birds were not significant for the Nazca people, there are no reasons to draw their geoglyph. So, their existence should be closely related to the purpose of etching geoglyphs. But the reason is difficult to answer.”
Eda and his colleagues have certainly enhanced our knowledge of these enigmatic geoglyphs in the Nazca Desert. But there’s still a long way to go before we can come up with definitive answers as to the purpose of these striking images. Perhaps we’ll never find the key to unlock this intriguing puzzle. But we can always continue to marvel at these ancient artifacts.

Share This Blog with Friends!