September 2 - 4, 2014
Nazca is one of the most fascinating archaeological places I have explored in South America. This perplexing, desolate place was once an abundant human civilization home to the ancient Nazca culture that thrived centuries ago. At their peak, the Nazca consisted of an estimated 25,000 people between 200 BC to their decline in 700 AD. Perhaps one of the least understood wonders of the world, the Nazca lines consists of hundreds of stylized animal and geometric figures etched into the dry Peruvian plain known as the pampa. The imprinted pampa acts like a blackboard to one of mankind’s unexplained mysteries. Many theories attempt to explain the wonder and mystery behind the lines, but this archaeological puzzle has yet to be deciphered with concrete evidence.
After picking up my brother Jesse from the airport, we could not have been more ready to leave the gray, bustling streets of Lima for the expansive desert valley of Nazca. We took an afternoon bus to Nazca, a rough eight-hour bus ride through the bleak, plain landscape. I had mistakenly ate the complementary food offered by the bus attendant and spent quality time cradling the toilet the whole journey. My stomach was releasing a wrath I have never encountered before in my life and I visited my newly acquainted friend four times, cursing at my own stupidity. When we arrived, we caught a cab to our hostel in which we were the only guests at the time. The place had a cozy, bed and breakfast atmosphere as many of the owner’s family were watching television in the lobby. Jesse and I basically had private rooms and at a mere price of only $4 a night (light breakfast included), it was the most inexpensive hostel I stayed at during my travels.
It took me a few days to recover from my bus experience. My appetite was non-existent the following day and I felt fatigued the entire time in Nazca. We spent much of our time on the roof of our hostel, enjoying the view from under our canopy where we ate fresh fruit purchased at the marketplace below. When we settled in, Jesse and I took a tour of the Chauchilla Cemetery located 30km south of Nazca. The cemetery consisted of well-preserved, mummified bodies due in part by the dry climate and low humidity. In the past, the burial tombs were heavily raided by grave robbers, but many of the mummies remain in their original resting place. We walked to the exposed burial sites, each lined by adobe bricks. The hair, textiles, and fibers of the bodies were intact, many with long, matted hair indicating their high status in society. The bodies were placed in a seated position with their arms crossed and legs bent toward their abdomen.
Each burial site provided an overview of the contents found in each tomb. The Nazca left elements of their livelihoods with their deceased, buried in 15-foot deep tombs surrounded by important artifacts that helped archaeologists unravel their unique culture. The tombs were accessible through an underground shaft that could be reopened in order insert more mummy bundles inside. Although I personally did not notice any skull alterations in the cemetery, the Nazca would often perform primitive surgeries on the brain as a cure-all remedy for anything from battle wounds to mental illness. Most of these surgeries were done while the patient was still alive as evidence shows signs of healing in the frontal bones. I did notice, however, that some of the mummies had elongated skulls which was incredibly odd. It was the first time I have seen anything like it and it took me back to the fourth installment of Indiana Jones.
The tour concluded by visiting a pottery workshop that replicates the methodology of how the early Nazcas would have created them. The Nazca had a reputation for crafting this beautiful, elaborate pottery that were often abstract with very little realistic imagery. Many of their ceramics and textiles were designed with depictions of animal and plant life as well as mythological deities. An elderly man guided us through the steps of replication with similar techniques used by the Nazca. He displayed the types of earthy colors found in the desert and demonstrated how mixing fine and coarse textured clay created different color palates.
Without the use of molds or the aid of a potter’s wheel (which did not exist at the time), the Nazca brilliantly coiled each ceramic piece by hand using an array of at least 15 distinct pigments. Painted by flexible bristles made from human hair, the pottery artist would draw deities and mythical creatures with a diversity of colors using white, red, or black as the background. The finalized pieces were then polished to give off a glossy appearance to highlight the chosen colors.
The thin-walled vessels were done with such complexity, often in a wide variety of shapes such as bowls, jars, beakers, and other miscellaneous forms. Some of the artwork display clues to their livelihoods. For instance, the Nazca warriors practiced headhunting as depicted on their pottery with severed heads with a punctured hole in their skull. A rope was inserted and hung from banners, poles, and even warriors' waists. It is not yet proven what the reason was for these acts are, but many experts believe the trophy heads have ritualistic significance.
The Nazca were heavily committed to the manufacturing of their pottery so much so that the meaning and significance is not well understood. Clearly, it was of symbolic expression, but what role did this extraordinary pottery have in their culture to produce so many? These visual depictions leave unanswered questions and a very serious debate over its purpose.
The Mysterious Nazca Lines
Believed to be constructed by the Nazca culture between 300 BC and 700 AD, the Nazca Lines were created by piling up oxidized, darker surface rocks on the desert floor. Over many generations, these superimposed rocks exposed to sunlight were removed by hand to reveal the lighter-colored subsurface. The dry, stable conditions of the desert allow for a slower deterioration rate and a natural preservation of the lines for more than 1,000 years. These geoglyphs cover an area of over 400 square miles and vary from only a foot wide to over 900 yards long and 100 yards wide. By using a model and coordinated labor, the Nazca people created the lines at roughly 200 times as large as the model used. Over 300 figures were traced on the pampa with figures such as the hummingbird, spider, monkey, and even some human being-like figures. Some creatures are foreign to the region and some are completely imaginary, using a combination of animal parts. The lines were discovered by the German archaeologist Maria Reiche in the 1930s, and dedicated her life to its protection and research up until her death in 1998.
There are quite a few theories that attempt to explain the mystery of the lines. They can be categorized as terrestrial and aerial theories are both are heavily disputed. Some experts suggest that the lines were meant to be seen from the air, possibly to appease the gods for a successful yield. For it was believed that the mythological deities had control of the power of rain to the region as well as the power to withhold it. They could possibly have been blueprints for an aircraft for the “gods” to land here as the lines acted as a sort of landing strip. These geoglyphs could have signaled something from above, indicating that “everything is prepared and ready for you”. The more controversial theories dabble into the realms of the extraterrestrial and supernatural. As absurd as it sounds, the lines are mind bobbling enough to make you wonder.
On the other hand, some experts in support of terrestrial theories believe that it was a ceremonial walkway and place of worship for the land and mountains. The most plausible and universally accepted theory states the Nazca lines were constructed for religious procedures, even if it is vague. Since Nazca is in a seismic zone composed of over 300 fault lines and hundreds of large underground canals, the lines could have acted as a map that marked the source of subterranean water reservoirs. Or maybe an astronomical calendar used to calculate planting and harvest times using the sun’s position at the solstices and equinoxes and marking of disappearance of important stars? Predicting the arrival of rainfall would be a matter of life or death. No individual theory has conclusive evidence, but a combination of these theories make our understanding of the lines have weight.
THE VIEW FROM ABOVE
Jesse and I woke up early to take a helicopter tour of the Nazca lines. It was our last day in the dusty town of Nazca. Although over a thousand tourists visit every year, not much of the money has been used for maintenance on their city's infrastructure, especially after that disastrous earthquake in 1996 that nearly decimated half the city. We did not find anything noteworthy about this place other than the surprising lush, green Plaza de Armas that seems to contradict its bleak surroundings. A shuttle brought us to the airport outside of town. This airport flew exclusively over the Nazca Lines and costed roughly $100 to fly over the lines for half an hour. According to our tour guide, a walk on the pampa would be disappointing in comparison to an aerial view as the symbols are ambiguous on the ground and nearly impossible to see the whole figure. He recommended going in the early morning before the pampa gets hazier.
I was quite nervous looking at the runway since I have never been on a small airplane before now. The plane rumbled before takeoff and I closed my eyes until I felt the lift. The lines are easily identifiable and most appreciated from the window of a small airplane. I could spot the majority of the lines with the naked eye. The lines were quite tiny from our elevation and the pilot had to swerve on both sides for everyone to attempt to view them. I must have missed the first three due to lack of preparedness. When my eyes could not focus, my camera could. Everyone was constantly pointing without reference point, but it was the full experience. The strangest of the lines has to be the “Astronaut”, a cartoonish yet human-like figure situated on the side of a plateau. In the end, Jesse and I agreed that the lines were not a cheap expedition, but if we decided not to see them, we would have regretted it. The sheer technique to make these spiral lines is unbelievable to me. The flight makes you appreciate the immensity and mystery of this archaeological finding. Those 30 minutes in the air will have a greater hold on you than many other destinations in your lifetime.
Preceding the Incan Empire, the Nazca flourished in the narrow, desert valleys but had long disappeared before the time of Spanish conquest. The Nazca civilization is located in one of the world’s driest deserts. Generations of drought may have led the Nazca people to their demise in the late 8th century. Neighboring enemies capitalized on the susceptible Nazca and they were eventually overtaken by the Wari, who themselves collapsed in 1,000 AD.
There was relatively little of interest for my brother and I to go beyond Nazca. As many travelers continued southward to cross the border to Chile, we decided backtrack to Lima, hitting the destinations we missed along the way. We had approximately one week before we had to pick up our mom at the airport terminal. Those who crossed paths with us along the way advised us on what they thought were worth-while experiences while we gave them our thoughts on the Nazca Lines.
It is difficult to wrap my head around this desolate-looking region as once teeming with life and a vibrant human society. Choreographed seamlessly in the heart of the desert, the lines leave you with questions and thirsty for an answer. Only theories and speculations try to put this mystery to rest. Maybe some things are not meant to be known.
- Aveni, Anthony F. Between the Lines: The Mystery of the Giant Ground Drawings of Ancient Nasca, Peru. Austin: U of Texas, 2000. Print.
- Blore, Shawn. Frommer's South America. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2008. Print.
- Moker, Molly, Kelly Kealy, and David Dudenhoefer. Fodor's Peru. New York: Fodor's Travel Publications, 2011. Print.
- Schlecht, Neil, and Jennifer Reilly. Frommer's Peru. Hoboken, NJ: Frommer's, 2008. Print.
- Silverman, Helaine, and Donald A. Proulx. The Nasca. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002. Print.