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The Nazca: People & Lines

Instructor: Lucia Reyes
The Nazca were an ancient civilization made famous by their mysterious Nazca lines. But who were the Nazca? What was their culture like? What were their religious beliefs? Read this lesson about the Nazca people to find the answers to these questions and more.

Introduction

The Nazca people formed a civilization in southwest Peru in approximately 100 BCE. They flourished for hundreds of years until their gradual demise led to a final collapse around 750 CE. Strongly influenced by their predecessors, the Paracas, the Nazca built a civilization that resulted in impressive pottery, textiles, and geoglyphs etched into the earth's surface known as the Nazca Lines.

Environment and Agriculture

The Nazca lived in a series of chiefdoms amidst the arid coastal plains of Southern Peru. The Nazca valley is located approximately 400 kilometers south of Peru's current capital city, Lima, and 350 kilometers southwest of the city of Cuzco, once capital of the Inca Empire. The large flat plains occupied by the Nazca are known as pampas. The region is extremely dry and receives little rainfall, maintaining a yearly average temperature of 25 degrees Celsius (77 degrees Fahrenheit).

Map of Peru
Nazca map

Due to their arid environment, the Nazca people had to be creative in their acquisition and storing of water. They created aqueduct systems called puquois. Puquois carried water from underground sources either to reservoirs for storage, or to fields to irrigate crops.

An image of a Nazca puquois
Nazca aqueduct puquois

Thanks to the puquois, the Nazca were able to grow a number of crops in the region. Staple foods included maize (corn), beans, and squash. They also consumed fish, peanuts, sweet potato, and cassava. Their non-consumable crops included gourds, the coca plant, and cotton, which was used for textiles. Llamas were used for wool, meat, and as pack animals.

Religious Beliefs and Practices

Nazca artifacts indicate that their religious beliefs centered on agriculture and fertility. They worshiped a number of gods, or nature spirits. They believed that these nature spirits played an active role in Nazca existence and survival. Often the hallucination-inducing San Pedro cactus was used by shamans to connect with these spirits and act as intercessors.

Did this female figure represent fertility?
Nazca female figure

Much of what is known about the Nazca religion comes from their pottery. Their polychrome, or multicolored, pottery came in different shapes such as double spout bottles, effigy forms, and mythical creatures. Since the Nazca had no writing system, iconography painted on pottery served as means of communication and preservation of history. Scenes depicted nature spirits in the form of mythical animals or as anthropomorphic beings. Examples include the mythical killer whale, the mythical spotted cat, and a snake-like creature. Sometimes spirits were depicted as having both human and animal characteristics.

Pottery in the form of a lobster
Nazca pottery lobster

The City of Cahuachi

Archeologist digs at the site of Cahuachi have uncovered large amounts of Nazca pottery. The city of Cahuachi was likely a center of religious ceremonies and feasts. Painted animals such as monkeys on pottery indicate that people from far away regions traveled to Cahuachi, suggesting its importance as a pilgrimage site. Images such as whales may indicate that rituals performed here were related to water and fertility.

Pottery in effigy of a whale
Nazca pottery whale

Some rituals involved sacrifices of animals such as llamas and guinea pigs. Mummies, textiles, and artifacts made of gold and shell have also been discovered at Cahuachi.

Burial Practices

Burial practices vary in Nazca society. The mummies found at Cahuachi as well as other sites are remarkably preserved, thanks to the dry desert climate. Some mummies still have flesh and hair. Partial burials have also been found, which include bundles of limbs, piles of skulls, or bodies with missing parts. Sometimes a head was replaced with a ceramic vessel with a face painted on it.

Nazca mummies found at a burial site
Nazca burial site

Severed heads known as trophy heads have also been found. These skulls have a hole in the forehead through which a rope could be attached, leading some historians to believe they were carried or ritually displayed. Other scholars propose that these trophy heads were actually war trophies.

Nazca trophy head
trophy head

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