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Peru’s Bucket List Destination: The Mysterious Nazca Lines

Peru is filled with ancient mysteries including the structures at Sacsayhuamán and the ancient towers of Chulpas, but one mystery in particular seems to continuously intrigue visitors– The Nazca Lines.

The Nazca Lines consists of over 300 geoglyphs—large images made of durable elements–depicting figures of animals, humans, plants, and various geometric and linear shapes. The 300 figures are found within a 190 square mile area in the Nazca Desert, about 400 km from the country’s capital, Lima. Its consistently dry and windless climate, and little variation in weather, has contributed to the preservation of the Nazca Lines.

The most astonishing drawings seem to be the zoomorphic images consisting of a bird measuring 300 meters, or 900 feet–the largest animal image discovered. Runner up is one of a lizard at 180 meters, or 595 feet. A pelican, the famous Nazca condor, and a monkey all measure at about 135 meters or 445 feet. Other images include a shark, fish, spider, parrot, flamingo, iguana, dog, llamas, jaguar, fox, and whale.

The rarity of these images is in the fact that they can only be seen from the above. How is it possible that an ancient civilization created such intricate and specific designs in the earth while still on the ground?

Discoveries & Theories

The lines were discovered in 1939 by Paul Kosok, a Long Island University professor researching the ingenious irrigation system created by pre-Inca civilizations on the coast of Peru. During a flight over the Nazca desert, Kosok noticed several long lines etched into the earth’s surface. After outlining them, he concluded that they formed the shape of a bird. This discovery happened on winter Solstice in the southern hemisphere, June 21st. His curiosity drove him to fly over the area where multiple lines connected, and he realized that the sunset positively corresponded to the direction of each line; this led him to believe that the purpose of the lines must have been related to the position of the sun and the stars. The Nazca Lines might have been used to mark the winter and summer Solstices, or important dates.

It was Maria Reiche, a close colleague of Kosok, who continued to analyze the geoglyphs and dedicated her life to the research and protection of the Nazca Lines. Reiche developed her theories based on her background as a mathematician and total immersion in Andean culture and history. Utilizing detailed observation, measurements, and extensive cataloging of all lines and drawings discovered, Reiche was able to publish her book The Secret of the Pampas in which she let the whole world know about her mysterious findings.

Reiche and Kosok agreed that the Nazca people were a highly intelligent civilization which understood the need for a successful crop for survival. Their theories state that in order to time cultural events, it was important that the people understood the ways in which the celestial bodies influenced agriculture; thereby gaining more thorough knowledge in when to start the seeds, harvest, and prepare soil for the next season. These researchers accused those not willing to give the Nazca people credit for their impressive systems prejudice against a primitive culture which proved their high level of intelligence in their attempt to translate abstract concepts into their drawings.

Another archeologist named John Reinhardt believed the lines and images held religious meanings meant to worship the gods to bring a successful crop. His theory suggests the lines lead to sacred passageways where the gods could be worshipped. Those following this theory believe there is insufficient evidence to support the astronomic calendar theory of Reiche and Kosok.

Still, for many archeologists and scientists the origin and purpose of the lines remain a mystery. There are many pieces of this puzzle which have not been found and questions left unanswered.

Newest Discoveries

In April 2018, the National Geographic published a piece which indicates that 50 new examples have been discovered traced into the earth’s surface. Though it’s been concluded that some of the newer discoveries belong to the Nazca people, archaeologists surmise that the earlier Paracas and Topará cultures carved many of the newfound images.

Unlike the Nazca lines, the Paracas images have been found laid on hillsides, making them visible to the villages below. These new images prove that pre-Nazca cultures have been experimenting with geoglyphs almost 1000 years before the famous Nazca images took shape, introducing new theories about its uses and significance.

Ironically enough, these new discoveries would not have been possible if it weren’t for a threat to the preservation of previously known lines. These newfound images fall into the protection of UNESCO World Heritage Site encompassing the Nazca and Palpa lines, but they have yet to be registered with the Ministry of Culture.

The fight to protect this history is ongoing and against the effort within Peru to reproduce deeds and build illegal housing, eradicating the country’s cultural heritage in the process. Castillo, a professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru and the country’s former vice-minister of cultural heritage says, “This is a constant battle, so the work we’re doing—documenting the sites, geo-referencing—is the best protection we can give the sites.”

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