On the arid coastal plain of southern Peru arose a culture that was to become one of the most famous in the prehistory of that country. Between roughly 200 BC and AD 600, the people inhabiting the Nazca River system made textiles and ceramics that were of the highest technical and artistic quality. Thanks to the desert climate, many of these objects were well preserved and can be seen in museums much as they appeared to the people who made them nearly two thousand years ago. Among the finest collections of Nazca ceramics are those of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia y Arqueologia in Lima and in The Art Institute of Chicago .
The Nazca people also constructed large pyramidal structures for ceremonial purposes and an intricate system of underground canals, the latter apparently unique in the Americas. However, it was the discovery, over fifty years ago, of giant desert markings that brought the Nazca culture to the public eye. Large figures and lines constructed on the desert surface near the town of Nazca came to be called "one of the most baffling enigmas of archaeology" . The figures comprise drawings of animals, fish, birds, geometrical designs, and even anthropomorphic figures, all made on such a scalesome are over one hundred meters longthat they can be seen without distortion only from the air. The term used today to describe a drawing on the earths surface is geoglyph, but the lines and figures at Nazca came to be called collectively the Nazca Lines. Their meaning has continued to puzzle archaeologists to the present day.
The Nazca Lines are not the only geoglyphs in South America. In Peru, important figures have been found in other coastal plains and valleysfor instance, in the Zana, Santa, and Sechin Valleys on the north coast, in the Pampa Canto Grande to the north of Nazca, and in the Sihuas Valley to the south. Numerous geoglyphs have been found also in northern Chile. Although at time impressive, none of the concentrations of these other geoglyphs can rival that found on the desert plain near Nazca in the variety and elaboration of forms.
There is little doubt who made the Nazca geoglyphs. Many of the figures on the desert are also portrayed in the ceramics and textiles of the Nazca culture . Moreover, much of the pottery found at the geoglyphs was of Nazca origin. A C-14 date of wood from a post in the area of the geoglyphs fall within the time frame of the Nazca culture.
The construction of the geoglyphs has often been described as requiring advanced technology, some authors even claiming that the lines could not have been made without aerial supervision. However, it has been successfully demonstrated that the huge desert figures could have been amplified from scale models using elementary tools and techniques. The geoglyphs are formed when gravel with an oxidized surface, which covers the land, is removed to expose the light soil below. The almost total lack of rain in this region has been a primary reason that the lines have survived until the present day.
While the basic question as to who created the geoglyphs, as well as when and how they were made, appear to have been answered, the question as to why continues to raise controversy. It is not possible to examine here the many theories that have been presented to explain the geoglyphs. Some theories (such as the one that they were made by extraterrestrials) have no scientific basis and ignore much of the information available on the geoglyphs and on Nazca culture. One of the most widely accepted theories is that the geoglyphs were used as aids in making astronomical observations. Recent studies, however, show that they alignments are no more accurate than would be expected to occur by chance. Also, many of the lines are shorter or longer than necessary, do not point to areas where the most significant astronomical activity takes place, and cannot be dated accurately enough to deal with problems of changes in the position of celestial bodies through time. Moreover, it has not yet been possible to relate scientifically the geometric and zoomorphic figures to astronomical observations. The geoglyphs are left largely unexplained by this theory.
Because they lived in a desert climate, the Nazca people would obviously have been concerned with their relationship to the natural environment. Indeed, such a concern was common throughout the Americas and has continued to be so in coastal South America to the present time. In the case of the Nazca people, we see this demonstrated by motifs on their ceramics. The immense repertory of motifs includes various bird species, reptiles, mammals, and fish, as well as cultivated plants such as achira , maize, and lucuma . An indigenous adaptation to the desert is seen also in the elaborate system of underground filtration canals that were constructed over many centuries. Water has always been a critical problem because the Nazca River does not have water for some months of the year and may have none at all for several years. If there were insufficient rainfall in the mountains to the east, the rivers would dry up, and the underground water currents would also gradually disappear. Since the Nazca people were dependent on an intensive agriculture utilizing irrigation, their position was always precarious.
The beliefs held by the Nazca are indicated by the archaeological remains, the abundant imagery on Nazca ceramics, accounts written in Spanish colonial times as to traditional worship, current beliefs that are rooted in the past, and an examination of the essentially unchanged ecological situation. These different sources help in developing a broad interpretation of the Nazca symbolic system and what their ancient beliefs might have been and, in particular, how the Nazca people could have related the geoglyphs to the natural environment.
In the late 1500s and early 1600s, the deities that were worshipped at Nazca prior to the arrival of the Spanish were identified as mountains and springs. The principal deity was a mountain of sand. This mountain, now called Cerro Blanco, dominates the town of Nazca. According to local legend, it is associated with the highest mountain on the eastern horizon, Illa-kata, with a still more distant snow peak, Carhuarazo, and with the mountain Tunga near the coast. Illa-kata is the mountain/weather deity that is thought to supply the surface water of the Nazca River while Tunga is linked with the god of the sea. A lake believed to exist in the center of Cerro Blanco feeds the underground canal system. Pre-Hispanic ritual sites were found on the tops of Illa-Kata and Tunga, while modern offerings have been seen on Cerro Blancos sandy, and thus constantly shifting, summit. Sea shells and river stones, both common offerings for water, were found, respectively on the summits of Tunga and Cerro Blanco.
Current rituals at Nazca also occur as part of a mountain/water cult, and offerings for rain are made on mountains to the east of Nazca. Although distant from Nazca, straight lines are still being used in the Andean highlands as sacred paths to reach points from which the surrounding water sources, principally mountains, are worshipped . These sacred lines may belong either to individual families or entire villages. If this was the case of Nazca, the numerous lines might have been made by different groups, constructing them through the centuries.
At Nazca, sea shells and remains of ceremonial vessels for liquids were found at some of the geoglyphs, especially at mounds of stones at the centers of converging lines ("ray centers") or at the ends of trapezoidal figures . Clearly, those mounds at which offerings were made had a ritual significance. During the Inca period (and still today), stone mounds were used as places for making offerings to mountains, and they were often perceived as representing the mountains themselves.
According to one study, the orientations of the triangles and trapezoids are statistically correlated with the flow of water, and the ray centers are generally situation relative to the river system. The evidence indicates, therefore, that the straight lines were utilized in ceremonies relating to a water cult, likely as ritual paths to places at which offerings were made. Today, the lines in the Andean highlands are said to have been kept straightened in order to gain religious merit and because this added to their power. The more open triangles and trapezoids were probably places where larger groups gathered for such ceremonies. We know that, both during the Inca period and in recent times, offerings were made in open places, including plazas, to the surrounding water sources, among which the most important were mountains.
The geometric figures can be interpreted similarly. Spirals, zigzags, and oscillating motifs were common in South America and have been widely interpreted as motifs of a water cult. For example, zigzags represented lightning and rivers, while spirals symbolized sea shells and, thus, the ocean, which was perceived as the source of all water.
Animal and plant figures have particularly puzzled observers, but they, too, begin to make sense when analyzed in terms of traditional Andean beliefs. Let us first examine the bird figures. Today at Nazca, the sighting of a heron, pelican, or condor is interpreted as a sign that it will rain in the mountains. The condor is widely believed to be the manifestation of the mountain gods. In some areas, hummingbirds are considered intermediaries with, or even manifestations of, mountain gods . The various sea birds have an obvious association with the ocean.
Turning to the animal and insect figures, the monkey and lizard may have been seen as protectors or as symbols of water because of their association with places where water is available. When many lizards are out, this is taken as a sign that it will rain . Large marine creatures need no further comment in this context; the identification of a shark or killer-whale motif could indicate that it played a role in rituals for success in fishing. Fox are perceived in some areas as the "dogs" of the mountain gods, and the Incas tied dogs out to howl until the Weather God sent rain. Spiders and millipedes also appear when it is about to rain .
Flowers, algae, and trees are also believed to be depicted on the desert. In an arid climate, these can all be interpreted as fertility symbols, and there are also more specific ways that they may have been perceived within this context. Flowers are used in rituals to the east of Nazca to invoke the mountain deities that bring rain, seaweed appears in a ceremony to induce rain, and wood was employed in the construction of the filtration canals.
The anthropomorphic figures on the hillsides near Nazca are generally visions of figures found in Nazca ceramic iconography . Their contexts and accompanying details have led most researchers to the conclusion that they represent deities associated with agricultural fertility and water.
A major theme of Nazca ceramic art features complex figures with feline faces, human trophy-heads, and shark or killer-whale appendages, probably alluding to war, the taking of heads, and the use of blood offerings to earth, sky, and water. Similarly dressed figures may have appeared in rites designed to "feed" the natural elements upon which human existence depended . Other figures pertain to rites of the harvest season . The relationship between this imagery and the Nazca terrain is further borne out by a vessel depicting a desert landscape on its surface yet intended to contain liquid within , and by a remarkable drum in the shape of a man, covered with a complete "text" of signs and symbols pertaining to the Nazca world view . Similar observations can be made about the imagery of spectacular feathered textiles, which may show symbolic animals, metaphoric figures, the sun, and many other motifs, including abstract forms . A few of the figuresthe spider, the dog, and the monkey, for instancesometimes appear to have extended sexual parts. This has been interpreted by some scholars as indicating that these animals had roles in a fertility cult, a theory that is in accord with the general conclusion reached here.
The explanation of the lines and figures as having played roles in a water/fertility cult still leaves unanswered the question of why many were made on such a large scale and can best be seen only from the air. Weather deities, generally perceived as residing in mountains, wereand still arewidely thought to oversee their domains, either by manifesting themselves as birds or by taking the form of a mythological flying feline. Thus, the construction of the figures would have been seen as a means of attracting their attention in order to invoke an increase in crop fertility, especially through the means of a stable water supply.
The interpretation provided above covers the vast majority of the geoglyphs at Nazca. Given the lack of historical information dating to the time the geoglyphs were made, it is clear that their precise meanings will never be known. Symbols can vary in meaning over time and, indeed, can change, depending upon their contexts, even within the same time period. We know, however, that many basic concepts have remained relatively stable over several centuries in the Andes. Some types of artistic representations have been only slightly modified over two millennia, and some concepts, shared throughout the Andes at the time of the Spanish conquest, have persisted to the present day, despite Christian proselytism.
According to one of these basic concepts, deities residing in mountains controlled metereological phenomena (rain, hail, snow, frost, clouds, lightning, etc.) and, thus, the fertility of crops, livestock, and, ultimately, humans. Such a belief has a sound ecological basis, since mountains do play a critical role in the condensation of rainland formations, and rivers lead down from them into valleys and across the plain to the sea. This helps to explain why mountain worship was of such widespread importance at the time of the Spanish conquest in many regions, including the coast of Peru, and why it continues to be so in traditional communities to the present day. The cult of the mountains as lifegiving icons has played a central role in the Andean peoples relationship with the natural world around them.
By viewing the geoglyphs from the perspective of sacred geography, we can explain diverse data in a logically consistent manner that is in accord with traditional Andean beliefs and with the available archaeological, ethnographic, and historical material. Although we can never completely decipher the Nazca Lines, we can go beyond fanciful interpretations and come closer to understanding the practical concerns and world view of the people who were responsible for constructing what became one of the greatest mysteries of archaeology.
© DR.JOHAN REINHARD unless otherwise indicated