Nasca Lines Explained?

By | March 3, 2010

Nasca Lines Explained

Since they became widely known in the late 1920s, when commercial air travel was introduced between Lima and the southern Peruvian city of Arequipa, the mysterious desert drawings known as the Nasca lines have puzzled archaeologists, anthropologists, and anyone fascinated by ancient cultures in the Americas. For just as long, waves of scientists—and amateurs—have inflicted various interpretations on the lines, as if they were the world’s largest set of Rorschach inkblots. At one time or another, they have been explained as Inca roads, irrigation plans, images to be appreciated from primitive hot-air balloons, and, most laughably, landing strips for alien spacecraft.

After World War II a German-born teacher named Maria Reiche made the first formal surveys of the lines and figures—called geoglyphs—outside Nasca and the nearby town of Palpa. For half a century, until her death in 1998, Reiche played a critically important role in conserving the geoglyphs. But her own preferred theory—that the lines represented settings on an astronomical calendar—has also been largely discredited. The ferocity with which she protected the lines from outsiders has been adopted by their caretakers today, so that even scientists have a hard time gaining access to the most famous animal figures on the plain, or pampa, immediately northwest of Nasca. …

To most people today, Nasca is all about the lines. But although the Nasca were certainly the most prolific makers of geoglyphs, they were not the first. On a hillside abutting a plateau south of Palpa sprawl three stylized human figures, with buggy eyes and bizarre rays of hair, that date to at least 2,400 years ago—earlier than almost any textbook date for the start of the Nas­ca civilization. Reindel’s group has attributed no fewer than 75 groups of geoglyphs in the Palpa area to the earlier Paracas culture. These Paracas geoglyphs, which often depict stylized humanlike figures, in turn share distinct visual motifs with even earlier images carved in stone, known as petroglyphs. …

These new findings make an important point about the Nasca lines: They were not made at one time, in one place, for one purpose. Many have been superimposed on older ones, with erasures and overwritings complicating their interpretation; archaeologist Helaine Silverman once likened them to the scribbling on a blackboard at the end of a busy day at school. The popular notion that they can be seen only from the air is a modern myth. The early Paracas-era geoglyphs were placed on hillsides where they could be seen from the pampa. By early Nasca times the images—less anthropomorphic, more naturalistic—had migrated from the nearby slopes to the floor of the pampa. Almost all of these iconic animal figures, such as the spider and the hummingbird, were single-line drawings; a person could step into them at one point and exit at another without ever crossing a line, suggesting to archaeologists that at some point in early Nasca times the lines evolved from mere images to pathways for ceremonial processions. Later, possibly in response to explosive population growth documented by the German-Peruvian team, more people may have participated in these rituals, and the geoglyphs took on open, geometrical patterns, with some trapezoids stretching more than 2,000 feet. “Our idea,” Reindel says, “is that they weren’t meant as images to be seen anymore, but stages to be walked upon, to be used for religious ceremonies.” …

The legacy of the Nasca lives on in the lines, of course, and although most people come to admire them from the air, what I’d seen and heard convinced me that you can’t truly understand the geoglyphs unless you experience them at ground level. In one conversation, Isla had described to me the sensation of walking upon those sacred paths. “You can feel it,” he said.

via Nasca Lines – National Geographic Magazine.

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