IN THE 1930S, when air travel was gaining popularity as the easiest way to cross the high altitude peaks of South America, passengers flying over the lofty plains of Peru were greeted with quite a sight. Down on the arid, dry plateau of the Nazca desert, which is about 250 miles south of Lima and covers an area of approximately 200 square miles, was a plethora of massive markings, many in the shape of people and animals, although there were also hundreds of crisscrossing, randomly spaced lines. Locals had always known of the strange marks found on the dusty floor, although it was only now, from the air, that their true designs were revealed. The discovery sparked an interest and a study that continues to this day: people wanted to know why they were there, and what they meant.
The pictures themselves were created using the gravel, soil and distinctly coloured undercrust. Because the area experiences less than an inch of rainfall each year, and the effect of the wind on the surface is minimal, the shapes have been preserved over centuries. There are over 100 outlines of animals and plants, including a monkey, spider, hummingbird and even, it is thought, a spaceman. Countless straight lines form squares, triangles, trapezoids and all manner of strange angles. They seem to run in random directions and to random lengths – one even stretches for nine miles along the desert floor.
Over 3,000 years ago the area was inhabited by a race called the Nazca, who had developed proficient techniques in pottery, weaving and architecture. They created highly effective irrigation systems and successfully grew crops in a harsh environment. It is widely believed that these people were responsible for drawing the lines, although the actual date of the lines’ creation is impossible to determine. A nearby city called Cahauchi, just south of the lines, was recently discovered as being the probable home of the Nazcan line drawers. Experts were able to deduce that the majority of Nazcan people fled the city after a series of natural disasters, with the few native people who remained being exiled or killed by Spanish conquistadors.
But why would a race want to draw pictures that could only be appreciated from the sky? Perhaps the most celebrated theory was the one advanced by Dr Maria Reiche. She tried to prove that the lines correlated to important stars rising in the heavens, and the symbols of animals were actually native representations of star constellations. But her views were not universally supported due to the very fact that the lines cannot be dated. As the Earth’s relationship with the universe turns, any line in any direction will correspond to some astronomical feature at some date. After a lifetime of study and fascination, Reiche died and was buried in the Nazca valley in 1998.
During the 1960s, writers such as Louis Pauwels, Jacques Bergier, and Erich von Daniken famously promoted ideas that the lines were runways or landing strip for alien visitors. Other theories suggest they are an astronomical calendar; that they were used for religious ceremonies; or that they indicated underground sources of water. One expert believes that, before the invention of weaving tools, the lines had men standing along them holding thread, in a version of a giant human loom. But exactly why the images were designed to be viewed from the air has never really been addressed. One quite astonishing theory is that the Nazca people were the original human aviators, and had developed the first rudimentary hot air balloon.
Our understanding of the Nazcan culture has developed with archaeological discoveries, but today the fate of the lines is in serious jeopardy. In recent years, political and advertising agencies have graffitied slogans on the patterns, whilst a recent surge in gold and copper mining in the area is defacing the designs with industrial activities and heavy traffic movements. The expanding local population needs a higher level of basic amenities, which has meant utility providers are now running cables and pipes over the site. Combined with the effects of natural weathering, this means that the most enigmatic and mysterious visual display of an ancient race is under threat of being lost from Man’s history forever.