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Nazca Lines: Mystery & Overview

Instructor: Lucia Reyes
This lesson will describe the location, creation, and various theories regarding the purpose of the mysterious and fascinating Nazca ines in Southern Peru.

What Are the Nazca Lines?

Are they flight paths etched into the earth for visiting aliens? Did an ancient people create them as messages to the gods? Did they serve astronomical or agricultural purposes? Answers to these questions may never be answered for certain regarding the Nazca lines in Peru, which have long been the source of mystery and imagination. This lesson will describe the location, creation, and the various theories regarding the purpose of these fascinating geoglyphs.

Map of Peru
Map of Peru

Location & Description of the Nazca Lines

The Nazca lines are a collection of designs formed in the surface of Peru's arid coastal plain. They are located about 400 kilometers south of the capital city of Lima between the towns of Nazca and Palpa.

Location of the Nazca lines
Map showing location of Nazca lines

This region is known as the 'Pampas de Jumana,' pampa referring to the large, flat treeless areas found in many parts of the center of South America. The Pampas de Jumana is a dry, windless region, maintaining a yearly average of 25 degrees Celsius (77 degrees Fahrenheit). The ground is speckled with millions of small pebbles, darkened from a high concentration of iron oxide. Peeking from beneath this darker layer, geoglyphs known as the Nazca lines spread across an area of nearly 500 square kilometers.

The hundreds of geoglyphs vary greatly in size as well as motif. Subjects include animals, such as the monkey, the condor bird, the guano bird, the hummingbird, the lizard, the spider, and the pelican. One geoglyph even depicts an Orca killer whale. The Nazca lines also include stylized plants, flowers and trees, and every day objects such as looms and ornamental clasps called tupus. Another category includes anthropomorphic figures of unknown subjects, such as a strange human-like creature with gigantic human hands, and another with four fingers, and yet another who appears to be an astronaut! Another group of geoglyphs consist of straight and criss-cross lines, wavy lines and geometrical shapes such as triangles, trapezoids, spirals, rectangles, and circles.

The condor
Nazca condor

What's even more interesting about many of these geoglyphs is their immense size. Some of the lines are as massive as 200 meters across (almost twice the length of a football field) and can only be seen in completion from the air.

Measurements include:

  • Hummingbird: 93 meters long (310 ft.)
  • Condor: 134 meters (440 ft.)
  • Monkey: 93 meters (310 ft.)
  • Spider: 47 meters (150 ft.)
  • Killer Whale: 65 meters (213 ft.)
  • Pelican: 285 meters (935 ft.)

Theories About the Creation of the Nazca Lines

The spider
The Spider

The Nazca lines are believed to have been created by the Nazca people sometime between 400-650 CE. There are a couple of reasons for attributing them to the Nazca. For one, the geoglyphs on the pampa are very similar to motifs on Nazca pottery and textiles. In addition, the Nazca left ceramic and wood remains at the lines that date back to the same period that the lines were created.

The patterns were made using a fairly simple method, taking advantage of the natural colors of the plateau floor and the surrounding environment. Simple tools such as ropes attached to wooden stakes were stretched across the desert floor and used to remove about 12-15 inches of the top dark layers of earth, revealing the lighter color sand below. In this way, a 'negative' image was created, the lighter sand below contrasting to the outer dark brown-red layer of earth. Over time the sub layer would harden due to large amounts of lime, helping to protect from erosion. The lack of wind and relative isolation of this region allowed these lines to be preserved for all this time.

Mysterious figure with large hands
Mysterious figure with large hands

Theories to the Nazca Lines' Purpose

So now we know what the Nazca lines are, where they were created, and an idea as to how…but there is still a missing piece of the puzzle. Why did the Nazca create these lines? What was their purpose? Did they have a religious meaning or a practical purpose? Were extraterrestrials involved?

These questions have been asked ever since modern man discovered them in the 20th century. In 1927, a Peruvian archaeologist named Toribio Mejia Xesspe came across them while hiking through the Peruvian foothills. Throughout the 1920s they became of further interest as flights throughout this region increased. Since then numerous archaeologists, astronomers and scholars have studied the Nazca lines and developed wide-ranging theories as to their purpose.

Maria Reiche, a researcher from Germany, believed that the lines formed a sort of astronomical calendar, charting stars, solstices, and even constellations that were used to mark planting seasons. According to another theory, the lines are actually labyrinths to be ventured through, perhaps in ceremonial processions by shamans. There are others who believe the lines to have religious significance, locations where the Nazca left offerings for the gods. Since the lines are best viewed from the air, they may have been made for the gods to see. Another theory proposes that the lines act as a memorial to those washed away in a great flood.

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