The Nazca Lines are giant sketches drawn in the desert of western Peru by ancient peoples. The drawings were created on such a large scale is such that the shapes can be readily discerned only from the air, leading to a variety of theories about their purpose.
The Nazca Lines were created in the time of the Nazca Indians, who flourished in the area from 200 BC to about 600 AD. Graves and ruins of their settlement have been found near the lines.
The lines would have taken a long time to create, perhaps several generations, and many people contributed to their creation. As to the purpose of the Nazca Lines, see below for some of the theories.
The area of the Peruvian desert in which the Nazca Lines were drawn is called the Pampa Colorada (Red Plain). It is 15 miles wide and runs some 37 miles parallel to the Andes and the Pacific Ocean. The desert is not sandy, but made of dark red surface stones and soil with lighter-colored subsoil beneath. The Lines were created by clearing away the darker upper layer to reveal the lighter subsoil.
It seems incredible that such simply-made drawings have survived for so many hundreds of years, and some have seen a mysterious element to this. But there is also a natural explanation: the surface is made of stone, not sand, and the climate of the area is such that there is practically no erosion. The Nazca peoples chose an excellent place for an enduring monument.
The Nazca Lines include straight lines and geometric shapes as well as stylized depictions of animals, humans and plants. The figures include:
- round-headed, rather friendly-looking human (known as "the astronaut")
- another human figure
Theories of the Nazca Lines mainly attempt to explain why these remarkable drawings were created, and some theories seek to address the "how" question as well. Especially in the earlier years of study, it was difficult for many anthropologists to believe that the ancient Nazca peoples could have created the Lines without help from a more advanced society - or species!
Perhaps the most famous theory of the Nazca Lines is that of Swiss writer Erich von Däniken. In his 1968 book Chariots of the Gods, he suggested that the lines were built by ancient astronauts as a landing field. He identifies the pictures as "signals" and the longer lines as "landing strips."
In 1977, Jim Woodman accepted that the Nazca people made the lines themselves, but puzzled over why they would make them so big that they couldn't even seen them. He hypothesized that the Nazca people used hot-air balloons for "ceremonial flights" to view their creations.
Woodman attempted to demonstrate the validity of his theory by constructing a hot-air balloon out of the materials that would have been available to the Nazca. Using cloth, rope and reeds, Woodman and his colleagues assembled the balloon then risked their lives on a balloon ride that reached a height of 300 feet. The balloon soon descended rapidly; the balloonists bailed out 10 feet above the desert before it crashed some distance away.
In recent years, the professional skeptic Joe Nickell has demonstrated that the drawings would not have been hard to accomplish with only the tools available to the ancient Nazca. Nickell has also shown that although the size of the figures suggests they were intended primarily for the enjoyment of the gods, the drawings can be appreciated from the ground as well.
The general consensus of archaeologists, anthropologists and scientists is that the Nazca Lines were created by the Nazca people themselves, without help from celestial visitors or aerial views. The figures drawn in the desert correspond with images found in other examples of Nazca art, such as pottery.
It is almost certain that the Nazca Lines had a sacred purpose, because: other artifacts of the Nazca culture show a preoccupation with death; other major monuments of the ancient world are known to be ritual in nature; and no plausible practical purpose has yet been discovered.
The Nazca Lines may have been ritual centers for helping the dead achieve immortality; they may have been an offering to the gods; or they could have been a major pilgrimage site.
We may never know why the Nazca peoples put so much time and care into a project that they could barely see. In spite of all that we have learned about them in recent years, the Nazca Lines remain a fascinating mystery.