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Nazca Lines

UNESCO World Heritage Site
Lines and Geoglyphs of Nazca and Pampas de Jumana
Name as inscribed on the World Heritage List
This aerial photograph was taken by Maria Reiche, one of the first archaeologists to study the lines, in 1953.
Type Cultural
Criteria i, iii, iv
Reference 700
UNESCO region Latin America and the Caribbean
Inscription history
Inscription Unknown (18th Session)

The Nazca Lines are a series of ancient geoglyphs located in the Nazca Desert in southern Peru. They were designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994. The high, arid plateau stretches more than 80 km (50 mi) between the towns of Nazca and Palpa on the Pampas de Jumana about 400 km south of Lima. Although some local geoglyphs resemble Paracas motifs, scholars believe the Nazca Lines were created by the Nazca culture between 400 and 650 AD.[1] The hundreds of individual figures range in complexity from simple lines to stylized hummingbirds, spiders, monkeys, fish, sharks, killer whales, and lizards.

The designs are shallow lines made in the ground by removing the reddish pebbles and uncovering the whitish/grayish ground beneath. Hundreds are simple lines or geometric shapes; more than 70 are zoomorphic designs of animals such as birds, fish, llamas, jaguars, monkeys, or human figures. Other designs include phytomorphic shapes such as trees and flowers. The largest figures are over 200 m (660 ft) across. Scholars differ in interpreting the purpose of the designs, but in general, they ascribe religious significance to them. Other theories have been summarized as:

"The geometric ones could indicate the flow of water or be connected to rituals to summon water. The spiders, birds, and plants could be fertility symbols. Other possible explanations include irrigation schemes or giant astronomical calendars."[2]

Due to the dry, windless, and stable climate of the plateau and its isolation, for the most part, the lines have been preserved. Extremely rare changes in weather may temporarily alter the general designs. As of recent years, the lines have been deteriorating due to an influx of squatters inhabiting the lands.[3]


  • History 1
  • Purpose 2
  • Alternative explanations 3
  • Environmental concerns 4
  • Images 5
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • Further reading 8
  • External links 9


Contrary to the popular belief that the lines and figures can only be seen with the aid of flight, they are visible from atop the surrounding foothills.[4]

The first mention of the Nazca Lines in print was by Pedro Cieza de León in his book of 1553, where he mistook them for trail markers.[5] Interest in them lapsed until the Peruvian archaeologist Toribio Mejia Xesspe spotted them while he was hiking through the foothills in 1927. He discussed them at a conference in Lima in 1939.[6][7]

Paul Kosok, a historian from Long Island University, is credited as the first scholar to seriously study the Nazca Lines. In the country in 1940-41 to study ancient irrigation systems, he flew over the lines and realized one was in the shape of a bird. Another chance helped him see how lines converged at the winter solstice in the Southern Hemisphere. He began to study how the lines might have been created, as well as to try to determine their purpose. He was joined by Maria Reiche, a German mathematician and archaeologist, to help figure out the purpose of the Nazca Lines. They proposed one of the earliest reasons for the existence of the figures: to be markers on the horizon to show where the sun and other celestial bodies rose. Archaeologists, historians, and mathematicians have all tried to determine the purpose of the lines.

Determining how they were made has been easier than figuring why they were made. Scholars have theorized the Nazca people could have used simple tools and surveying equipment to construct the lines. Archaeological surveys have found wooden stakes in the ground at the end of some lines, which support this theory. One such stake was carbon-dated and was the basis for establishing the age of the design complex. Scholar Joe Nickell of the University of Kentucky has reproduced the figures using tools and technology available to the Nazca people. The Scientific American called his work "remarkable in its exactness" when compared to the actual lines.[8] With careful planning and simple technologies, a small team of people could recreate even the largest figures within days, without any aerial assistance.[7]

On the ground, most of the lines are formed by a shallow trench with a depth between 10 and 15 cm (3.9 and 5.9 in). Such trenches were made by removing the reddish-brown iron oxide-coated pebbles that cover the surface of the Nazca Desert. When this gravel is removed, the light-colored clay earth which is exposed in the bottom of the trench produces lines which contrast sharply in color and tone with the surrounding land surface. This sublayer contains high amounts of lime which, with the morning mist, hardens to form a protective layer that shields the lines from winds, thereby preventing erosion.

The Nazca "drew" several hundred simple but huge curvilinear animal and human figures by this technique. In total, the earthwork project is huge and complex: the area encompassing the lines is nearly 500 km2 (190 sq mi), and the largest figures can span nearly 270 m (890 ft). Some of the measurements for the figures include that the hummingbird is 93 m (310 ft) long, the condor is 134 m (440 ft), the monkey is 93 m (310 ft) by 58 m (190 ft), and the spider is 47 m (150 ft). The extremely dry, windless, and constant climate of the Nazca region has preserved the lines well. This desert is one of the driest on Earth and maintains a temperature around 25°C all year round. The lack of wind has helped keep the lines uncovered and visible.

The discovery of two new small figures was announced in early 2011 by a Japanese team from Yamagata University. One of these resembles a human head and is dated to the early period of Nazca culture or earlier, and the other, undated, is an animal. In March 2012, the university announced a new research center would be opened at the site in September 2012 to study the area for the next 15 years. The team has been doing field work there since 2006 when it found about 100 new geoglyphs.[9][10]

In 2013, machinery used in a limestone quarry was reported to have destroyed a small section of a line, and caused damage to another.[11]

Nazca Lines seen from SPOT Satellite


Archeologists, ethnologists, and anthropologists have studied the ancient Nazca culture to try to determine the purpose of the lines and figures. One hypothesis is that the Nazca people created them to be seen by their gods in the sky. Kosok and Reiche advanced a purpose related to astronomy and cosmology: the lines were intended to act as a kind of observatory, to point to the places on the distant horizon where the sun and other celestial bodies rose or set in the solstices. Many prehistoric indigenous cultures in the Americas and elsewhere constructed earthworks that combined such astronomical sighting with their religious cosmology, as did the later Mississippian culture at Cahokia in present-day United States. Another example is Stonehenge in England.

Gerald Hawkins and Anthony Aveni, experts in archaeoastronomy, concluded in 1990, the evidence was insufficient to support such an astronomical explanation.[12]

Reiche asserted some or all of the figures represented constellations. By 1998, Phyllis B. Pitluga, a protégé of Reiche and senior astronomer at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, had concluded the animal figures were "representations of heavenly shapes". But she contends they are not shapes of constellations, but of what might be called counter constellations, the irregularly shaped dark patches within the twinkling expanse of the Milky Way.[13] Aveni criticized her work for failing to account for all the details.

In 1985, the archaeologist Johan Reinhard published archaeological, ethnographic, and historical data demonstrating the worship of mountains and other water sources predominated in Nazca religion and economy from ancient to recent times. He theorized the lines and figures were part of religious practices involving the worship of deities associated with the availability of water, which directly related to the success and productivity of crops. He interpreted the lines as sacred paths leading to places where these deities could be worshiped. The figures were symbols representing animals and objects meant to invoke the gods' aid in supplying water. The precise meanings of many of the individual geoglyphs remain unsolved as of 2013.

Henri Stierlin, a Swiss art historian specializing in Egypt and the Middle East, published a book in 1983 linking the Nazca Lines to the production of ancient textiles that archeologists have found wrapping mummies of the Paracas culture.[14] He contended the people may have used the lines and trapezes as giant, primitive looms to fabricate the extremely long strings and wide pieces of textiles typical of the area. By his theory, the figurative patterns (smaller and less common) were meant only for ritualistic purposes. This theory is not widely accepted, although scholars have noted similarities in patterns between the textiles and the Nazca Lines, which they take as sharing in a common culture.

Alternative explanations

Satellite picture of an area containing lines: North is to the right. (Coordinates: )

Phyllis Pitluga, senior astronomer at the Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum and a protégé of Reiche, performed computer-aided studies of star alignments. She asserted the giant spider figure is an anamorphic diagram of the constellation Orion. She further suggested the three of the straight lines leading to the figure were used to track the changing declinations of the three stars of Orion's Belt. In a critique of her analysis, Dr. Anthony F. Aveni noted she did not account for the other 12 lines of the figure; he commented generally on her conclusions, saying:

I really had trouble finding good evidence to back up what she contended. Pitluga never laid out the criteria for selecting the lines she chose to measure, nor did she pay much attention to the archaeological data Clarkson and Silverman had unearthed. Her case did little justice to other information about the coastal cultures, save applying, with subtle contortions, Urton's representations of constellations from the highlands. As historian Jacquetta Hawkes might ask: was she getting the pampa she desired?[15]

Jim Woodmann believes the Nazca lines could not have been made without some form of manned flight to see the figures properly. Based on his study of available technology, he suggests a hot-air balloon was the only possible means of flight. To test this hypothesis, Woodmann made a hot-air balloon using materials and techniques he understood to have been available to the Nazca people. The balloon flew, after a fashion. Most scholars have rejected Woodmann's thesis as ad hoc,[7] because of the lack of any evidence of such balloons.[16]

Environmental concerns

People trying to preserve the Nazca Lines are concerned about threats of pollution and erosion caused by deforestation in the region.

The Lines themselves are superficial, they are only 10 to 30 cm deep and could be washed away... Nazca has only ever received a small amount of rain. But now there are great changes to the weather all over the world. The Lines cannot resist heavy rain without being damaged.
          – Viktoria Nikitzki of the Maria Reiche Centre[17]

After flooding and mudslides in the area in mid-February 2007, Mario Olaechea Aquije, archaeological resident from Peru's National Institute of Culture, and a team of specialists surveyed the area. He said, "[T]he mudslides and heavy rains did not appear to have caused any significant damage to the Nazca Lines", but the nearby Southern Pan-American Highway did suffer damage, and "the damage done to the roads should serve as a reminder to just how fragile these figures are."[18]


The Hummingbird 
The Condor 
The Heron 
The "Giant" 
The Spider 
The Pelican 
The Dog 
The Hands 
The Monkey 

See also


  1. ^ Helaine Silverman, David Browne (1991). "New evidence for the date of the Nazca lines". Antiquity 65 (247): 208–220. 
  2. ^ Brown, Cynthia Stokes (2007). Big History. New York: The New Press. p. 167.  
  3. ^ Taj, Mitra. August 15, 2012. Pigs and squatters threaten Peru's Nazca lines. Reuters. Accessed on August 15, 2012.
  4. ^ Katherine Reece, Grounding the Nasca Balloon, In the Hall of Ma'at: "It is incorrect to say that the lines cannot be seen from the ground. They are visible from atop the surrounding foothills. The credit for the discovery of the lines goes to Peruvian archaeologist Toribio Mejia Xesspe who spotted them when hiking through the foothills in 1927."
  5. ^ In the Antwerp edition of 1554, see: Pedro Cieza de León, La Chronica del Peru (The chronicle of Peru), (Antwerp, (Belgium): Martin Nucio, 1554), page 141. On page 141, Cieza discussed the Nazca region of Peru and then mentioned that: " … y por algunas partes delos arenales se veen señales, paraque atinen el camino que han de lleuar." ( … and in some parts of the desert are seen signals, so that they [i.e., the Indians] find the path that has to be taken.)

    In 1586, Luis Monzón reported having seen ancient ruins in Peru, including the remains of "roads": Luis Monzón (1586) "Descripcion de la tierra del repartimiento de los rucanas antamarcas de la corona real, jurisdicion de la ciudad de Guamanga. año de 1586." in: Marcos Jiménez de la Espada, ed., Relaciones geográficas de Indias: Peru, volume 1 (Madrid, Spain: Manuel G. Hernandez, 1881), pp. 197-216. On page 210, Munzón mentioned seeing ancient ruins, including " … y hay señales de calles." ( … and there are signs of streets.) Munzón asked elderly Indians about the ruins. They told him that before the Incas, a people whom " … llamaron viracochas, …" ( … they called viracochas … ) inhabited the area, and "A éstos les hacian caminos, que hoy dia son vistos, tan anchos como una calle … " (To those [places] they made paths, that are seen today, as wide as a street … .)
  6. ^ Mejía Xesspe, Toribio (1939) "Acueductos y caminos antiguos de la hoya del Río Grande de Nazca" (Aqueducts and ancient roads of the Rio Grand valley in Nazca), Actas y Trabajos Cientificos del 27 Congreso Internacional de Americanistas (Proceedings and scientific works of the 27th international congress of American anthropologists), 1 : 559-569.
  7. ^ a b c Katherine Reece, "Grounding the Nasca Balloon", Into the Hall of Ma'at website
  8. ^ Unsolved History: Investigating Mysteries of the PastNickell, Joe (2005). , The University Press of Kentucky ISBN 978-0-8131-9137-9, pp. 13-16
  9. ^ "Team finds more Peru geoglyphs". Japan Times. Jan 20, 2011. Archived from the original on 2012-07-15. Retrieved 9 April 2012. 
  10. ^ "University to open center at Nazca Lines". Japan Times. March 22, 2012. Archived from the original on 2012-03-26. Retrieved 9 April 2012. 
  11. ^ By Manuel Vigo (2013-03-14). "Peru: Heavy machinery destroys Nazca lines". Peru this Week. Retrieved 2013-07-30. 
  12. ^ Cameron, Ian (1990). Kingdom of the Sun God: A History of the Andes and Their People. New York: Facts on File. p. 46.  
  13. ^ ROBERT McG. THOMAS Jr, "Maria Reiche, 95, Keeper of an Ancient Peruvian Puzzle, Dies", New York Times, 15 June 1998
  14. ^ Stierlin (1983)
  15. ^ Aveni, Anthony F. Between the Lines: The Mystery of the Giant Ground Drawings of Ancient Nasca, Peru . Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press. 1 July 2006 ISBN 0-292-70496-8 p.205 [1]
  16. ^ Haughton (2007)
  17. ^ Shafik Meghji, "Flooding and tourism threaten Peru's mysterious Nazca Lines", The Independent, July 17, 2004. Accessed April 02, 2007.
  18. ^ Living in Peru. "Peru: Nazca Lines escape mudslides", Living in Peru, February 20, 2007. Accessed April 02, 2007.
  • Aveni, Anthony F. (ed.) (1990). The Lines of Nazca. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society. ISBN 0-87169-183-3
  • Haughton, Brian. (2007). Hidden History: Lost Civilizations, Secret Knowledge, and Ancient Mysteries. Career Press. ISBN 1-56414-897-1
  • Lambers, Karsten (2006). The Geoglyphs of Palpa, Peru: Documentation, Analysis, and Interpretation. Lindensoft Verlag, Aichwald/Germany. ISBN 3-929290-32-4
  • Reinhard, Johan (1996) (6th ed.) The Nazca Lines: A New Perspective on their Origin and Meaning. Lima: Los Pinos. ISBN 84-89291-17-9
  • Sauerbier, Martin. GIS-based Management and Analysis of the Geoglyphs in the Palpa Region. ETH (2009). doi:10.3929/ethz-a-005940066.
  • Stierlin, Henri (1983). La Clé du Mystère. Paris: Albin Michel. ISBN 2-226-01864-6

Further reading

  • Johnson, Emma. 2007. The 'Mysterious' Nazca Lines. PARA Web Bibliography B-01.
  • Kosok, Paul (1965). Life, Land and Water in Ancient Peru, Brooklyn: Long Island University Press.
  • Nickell, Joe. 1983. Skeptical Inquirer The Nazca Lines Revisited: Creation of a Full-Sized Duplicate.

External links

  • Nazca Designs and Lines at Discover Peru
  • Tragedies flying over the Nazca lines
  • Nazca lines at DMOZ
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