Nazca Lines in Peru
Rich in history, culture and ancient archaeology, Peru is brimming with more than its fair share of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Perhaps none are more intriguing than the Nazca lines, one of the most awe-inspiring, remarkable, and yet puzzling archaeological areas in the world. Read on to learn more about the famous Nazca lines, including their history, significance and how to visit them for yourself.
History and Significance of the Nazca Lines in Peru
What are the Nazca lines?
The Nazca lines are found on a plain between the Nazca and Inca valleys in southern Peru. They comprise a vast collection of over 300 geoglyphs and 70 plant and animal images (known as biomorphs) etched into the desert floor and cover an estimated 170 square kilometres. From the air they appear as supersized figures, including a whale, condor, snake, llama, spider, tree and flower, along with various geometric motifs such as spirals, wavy lines and triangles. The designs were created through removing the dark red surface stones to expose a lighter-coloured subsoil. The largest figure spans 1,200 feet, whilst some of the straight lines run up to 30 miles.
When were they made and then subsequently discovered?
The lines are thought to be thousands of years old, created during the time of the Nazca Indians, an ancient prehistoric culture who flourished in the area between 200 BC and 600 AD. The lines likely took a long time to create, perhaps taking several generations, so it’s clear that the people involved were heavily invested in the project.
The etchings were first discovered by Peruvian archaeologist Toribio Mejia Xesspe in 1927 when he was hiking through the area’s foothills. However, it wasn’t until the late 1930s that they were brought to the world’s attention. Researchers flying over the area surveying for water realised that the lines formed animal shapes, whilst an increase in commercial flights over in the area fuelled further interest in the site.
Why were they made?
Since their discovery, the Nazca lines have remained a source of great mystery to the world. Basic questions about precisely who made them, how and why, simply remain unsolved, largely because the ancient culture living in the area at the time didn’t keep written records. The particular question of how the artists were able to draw such precise figures on such a large scale without the benefit of a bird eye’s perspective is particularly curious, and has given rise to a few theories for their creation. The puzzle of how and why the Nazca lines were made have captured the imagination of numerous archaeologists, mathematicians, historians and anthropologists, who have proposed numerous theories in a an attempt to solve the enigma.
Nazca Line Theories
- They serve an astronomical purpose: Maria Reiche, one of the earliest and most dedicated Nazca researchers became convinced that the lines represented a huge astronomical calendar that was used to mark places on the horizon where the sun and other celestial bodies rose and set. However, most other academics found her theories lacking, and since the 1970s researchers have moved away from archeo-astronomy views of the lines.
- They serve a religious function: One of the most convincing arguments is that the lines were constructed to please the gods or to serve other similar spiritual purposes. As a highly superstitious culture, this would explain why the Nazca people demonstrated such a huge commitment to the project. One idea is that the Nazca lines played a prominent role in pilgrimage. This was backed up when British explorer, Tony Morrison, found evidence of small shrines that appeared to be linked by the lines. Others have considered that the lines served as ritual centres to help the dead achieve immortality or for holding elaborate religious ceremonies.
- They are related to water sources and related rituals: Inhabiting a bone-dry desert environment meant the Nazca people likely placed a high value on water. Researchers have proposed that the lines and shapes serve as a map of underground water supplies, acting as a guide for those in need of plentiful supplies when out in the desert. This theory was first proposed by archaeologist John Reinhard, who also suggested that the figures symbolized a form of worship for water-supplying deities. As many of the lines point towards the Andes, the lines could also signify reverence for the mountains and the water that flows from them.
- Hot air balloons: In response to the question of how the Nazca people could have drawn such huge figures without being able to properly see what they were doing, drew the conclusion that they must have had an aerial perspective. In 1977, Jim Woodman proposed that they used hot-air balloons as a way to plan out and view their creations. However, this theory has since been dismissed as far-fetched. Scholars now believe that it would in fact have been possible for the Nazca people to create such figures from the ground using relatively simple surveying techniques and tools.
- Alien airport: One of the best known theories was made by Swiss author, Erich von Daniken, who claimed that the pictures etched into the desert were made to convey messages to extra-terrestrials whilst the lines were designed as landing strips for their alien aircrafts! Whether or not you believe this admittedly eerie desert site was a former giant extra-terrestrial airport, the Nazca lines are well worth visiting on any Peru tour.
Visiting the Nazca lines
No visit to Peru is complete without making the trip to witness this archaeological wonder for yourself. The lines are located near the town of Nazca, a 7-hour bus or taxi ride from the capital. To appreciate the sight in all its glory, we recommend taking to the sky via a plane or hot air balloon. Planes depart from the Maria Reiche Neuman Airport just outside Nazca, with tickets costing around 70-80 USD. Winds tend to pick up in the afternoon, so it’s best to opt for a morning flight if you’re prone to motion sickness.
It’s commonly assumed that the figures can only be seen in their full form from the air. But a recent research study actually found that every single geoglyph can be spotted from the ground. So taking to the foothills is another great way to experience the beauty and vast scale of the lines. There is also an observation tower along the Pan-American highway which offers fantastic views over three figures.