Mystery on the Desert — The Nazca Lines
F ROM LIMA the Pan American High-way winds south along the Peruvian coast through a succession of river valleys until it reaches the sleepy town of Nazca, population 20,000. For the residents it is a farming center, one that was old before the Spanish arrived and even before the Incas came to power. lts broad valley is green with cotton, corn, and a myriad of other crops. AU around rise the foothills that parade up to the mighty Andes.
It is not produce, however, that has put Nazca on the world map. To the north-west of town a triangular stretch of some-what level desert up to 15 km wide — the pampa — contains an astounding assort-ment of animal figures. lines, avenues, and trapezoids etched into the timeless surface. Rainfall is almost unknown. Here your footprints can last for millennia. In 1939 Peruvian archaeologist Toribio Mejia Xess-pe became the first scientist to note the lines and publish a description of them, though the local inhabitants had always known about them. Reasoning that the network specified important rising and setting points, Paul Kosok declared the pampa the world's largest astronomy book. How has this "astronomical hypothesis" fared in the intervening 45 years?
The geoglyphs, as they're called, are of two sorts. First are the "animals" — fan-tastic drawings of a monkey, spider, fox, and more — concentrated in a small sec-tion in the northeastern part of the pampa near the Pan Am Highway. From the ground the forms are practically impossible to see since they are up to scores of meters in extent. Only from the air can these wonders be viewed in their entirety.
The figures are very different from the rest of what's preserved on the pampa, though a couple more animals are found elsewhere. From many of the low hills on and around the pampa emanate numerous rays (narrow straight lines), avenues (broad lines), and trapezoids (avenues that broad-en out and end squared off). So different
PAN AMERICAN HIGHWAY
Ground-level view of a ray on the pampa; the ray's sides are marked by rocks.
are these from the animals that most Nazca researchers feel they are not from the same cultural epoch. Rays are also found quite far north and south, but nowhere in such profusion as at Nazca.
The animals may have had a religious or sociological meaning. Maria Reiche, who has studied the figures for almost four dec-ades, thinks that at least some of them represent constellations (the Spider being Orion, for example), but there are no con-vincing démonstrations of such relation-ships. It has been suggested that the figures were designed to be walked as a spiritual exercise or were associated with par-ticular families. The puzzling fact that the figures can be seen whole only from the air has also fueled spéculations that the natives were balloonists or that the figures were made by ancient astronauts! Yet there is no evidence their makers intended them to be seen at ail — maybe they were to be experienced in some other way.
The manner in which the animals were conceived and made is not very problema-tic. Andean and coastal cultures have a long tradition of exquisite textile design, and scaling up a figure should have been straightforward. The patterns were made on the desert by simply removing rocks from an area and stacking them up to form a border. Walking or sweeping the resulting figure disturbs a thin brown surface coating of material called desert var-nish, which accumulâtes over time. This action exposes the creamy pink soil under-neath (see the boxed item on page 200).
From an astronomical point of view the rays are much more promising. It has been suggested that those not aligned with horizon features mark the directions of important sunrises and sunsets (of the sol-stices, for example). According to Reiche,.] the trapezoids indicate the extremes of moonrise and set. On the other hand, equally reasonable explanations of the fea-; tures relate them to native families or to water flow across the pampa — a critical matter in a desert environment. The hy-drology of the pampa is quite complex, the water table ranging from just below the surface to hundreds of meters deep.
No really good, systematic photography of the area had been done before this year, and what pictures show is strongly depend-ent on the elevation and azimuth of the Sun. Even on the ground, lines appear and disappear during the day as seen from the same site. Anthony Aveni and Gary Urton of Colgate University have been en-gaged in a survey of the ray centers and in studying their overall organization since 1981. By the beginning of 1984 they had mapped an estimated 70 percent of them, finding 58 centers and 680 lines plus noting that all the centers are interconnected by lines. Under the auspices of Earth-watch they assembled a diverse team for a three-pronged assault on the problem this past June with one other coinvestigator, his team, and a dozen volunteers.
Aveni led a surveying group using a traditional transit and Sun sights for deter-mining line azimuths, as well as making test magnetic compass readings. The group also walked selected lines looking for additional ray centers. Aveni was joined in this by Clive Ruggles of Leicester University in England, another archaeoas-tronomer, and by anthropologists Persis B.
Maria Reiche, longtime student of the Nazca figures, is probably the best-known per-son in all of Peru. The photographs with this article are by the author, who partici-pated as a volunteer on the Earthwatch expédition described in the text.