Tracing the Nazca Lines of Peru

Candelabro de Paracas

I am on a speedboat crashing off waves from the small Peruvian seaside-fishing town of Paracas to the Ballestas Islands, where sea lions, Incan tern, and Humboldt penguins hang out. As red-brown hills come into view, a shape, almost like a cactus with two arms, becomes distinguishable from 20 kilometres away. As we draw closer to the shore, I see one arm has three bowl shapes on top of each other, and the other two have heart-like outlines. The trunk is topped by what resembles a crown, like a fancy trident. As the boat bobs, we stare up at this Candelabra of the Andes, carved 2 metres deep into the hillside and towering 181 metres high. It’s so clean-cut it could have been constructed yesterday, but carbon dating of pottery found nearby dates the work to around 200 BC. Why were these Nazca lines drawn? Did ancient people access it by reed boats, like those still used in the coastal town of Huanchaco, or did they come over land? And why here, facing out to sea? Was it a directional marker for the Gods pointing toward something they wanted?

Líneas de Nasca
Líneas de Nasca (Nazca Lines). Figura de la araña.

Days later, after traveling through arid desert and mountains with sparse greenery breaking the monotony, we arrive on the outskirts of the dusty town of Nazca, Peru. Our first stop is the Maria Reiche Museum. Reiche, known as The Lady of the Lines, was a German mathematician who dedicated over 50 years to studying why the geoglyphs of Nazca were drawn. Drawings, diagrams, tape measures and penciled maps hang in her simple bedroom. A mummy with long black hair sits hunched in a glass case, tattooed skin still intact. She was never able to solve the mystery. She surmised that they were astronomical calendars or depictions of constellations.

On the side of the Pan American Highway in the middle of nowhere, stands an 18 metres, red metal viewing tower, called El Mirador. I give 3 Sol to a man selling dust-covered souvenirs and books in various languages, and climb the tower. Reiche funded it after countless tourists unknowingly drove over the geoglyphs trying to find them. So indistinguishable are they from the ground, the Pan American Highway, constructed in the 1920s before the Nazca lines were even discovered, cuts straight through the figure of a giant lizard. It wasn’t until pilots on routine flights over Peru in the 1930s made the incredible discovery of these lines crisscrossing the desert along with intersecting triangles, rectangles, and quadrangles—lines that can only be seen from the sky!

Líneas de Nasca
Líneas de Nasca. Figura del colibrí.

From the tower, I look out over the vast desolate terrain. The white lines are unmistakable, outlining two hands, one with only four fingers, and to the right, a many-branched tree. These are only two of around seventy figures so far found that make up the 50 square kilometres of Nazca Lines. How could these massive carvings in the ground be constructed without any earthly capability to even see them?

Later, I board a six-seat Cessna 206 out of the main town. Green fields yield to desert and hills. The outline of a whale comes into view and a thick white line runs through the middle of it. Why a whale in the middle of a desert? We fly over narrow triangles stretching into the distance. One is 3 kilometres long. Some have hypothesized that this is an ancient runway!

The flight banks over a hill, and a vaguely human figure with a round head, long legs and a raised right arm appears. It’s called The Astronaut. The pilot tells us much smaller versions of it are found on ancient Nazca pottery. Did aliens visit ancient Peru? Was it some sort of God figure that was worshipped, or did those who consumed hallucinogens during traditional rituals dream it up?

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Líneas de Nasca
Líneas de Nasca. Figura de las manos.

The thirty-minute flight takes us over fourteen figures across the expanse of white lines resembling veins in the earth. Some, such as The Spider and The Hummingbird, carved into a flat plateau at the top of a hill, are easy to make out. Drawn so precisely, they look as if a mathematician has plotted points and then joined them in perfect symmetry. It’s like viewing a giant colouring book with pictures yet to be coloured.

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How did the creators of a thousand lines, figures, and 300 geometric shapes know what they were doing? Studies suggest they were created somewhere between AD 445 and AD 605. Many are on the plain with no hill to climb for a view or to gain any kind of perspective on what they were doing. The size of the figures is phenomenal. The Hummingbird measures 93 metres in length. The Monkey is 90 metres. The Flamingo is 300 metres.

Líneas de Nazca
Líneas de Nazca. Figura del mono.

Where did the Nazca people see the trees, monkeys, and birds they depicted, that were not native to that area? Did those responsible for drawing the aquatic figures once live on the coast, 50 or so kilometres away, to know what whales and fish looked like? Were these offerings or ancestor worship? Why were they drawn so big? Were they a form of communication with the gods or alien life forms that could be the only ones to actually see the carvings in their entirety? As the wind blows across this Peruvian desert now, there are no answers. Only questions. Only speculations. Perhaps all will be revealed one day.

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