A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Ever since the first commercial trans-Andean aviators spotted them in the 1930s, the giant ground drawings that cover 400 square miles of southern Peru's desert coast have remained an enigma. Acre-sized tracings of hummingbirds, foxes, and condors; a 100-foot-tall man with owllike eyes, his raised arms beckoning to us from a hillside; dozens of spirals, zigzags, triangles, and trapezoids; and 1,000 miles of long, straight lines crisscross a dry wasteland that bears an uncanny resemblance to the surface of Mars. Could these geoglyphs be effigies of ancient animal gods or patterns of constellations? Are they roads, star pointers, maybe even a gigantic map? If the people who lived here 2,000 years ago had only a simple technology, how did they manage to construct such precise figures? Did they have a plan? If so, who ordained it? It all seems so otherworldly.
To comprehend the Nasca lines, created by the removal of desert rock to reveal the pale pink sand beneath, visitors have proposed every imaginable explanation--from runways for spaceships to tracks for Olympic athletes, from op art to pop art, to astronomical observatories. As much as the lines awe me, I marvel equally at the imagination of the people who have sought explanations for them.
Water, walking, astronomy, kinship, division of labor and ceremonial responsibility, cleansing and sweeping, radiality: there is a place for all of these human actions and concepts in a complex, but nonetheless believable story of the Nasca lines. Above all, I think the lines were made to walk upon; they were pathways. I have no doubt that some sort of ritual on the ray centers and trapezoids, wherein people assembled for reasons connected to the ritual acquisition of water, was involved. The patterns of lines also speak of relations among people who maintained them, and possibly of astronomy via the connection between sunrise/sunset positions and the date of arrival of water in the valleys adjacent to the pampa. Whatever the mosaic of explanations, our cardinal rule has been that everything must make sense in the context of what we know about Andean culture in general and about Nasca culture in particular. We can no longer view the Nasca lines as the product of a massive superhuman work effort undertaken as a single-minded grand project. The people of ancient Nasca had no need of our cultural trappings. They used little advanced technology in their weaving, pottery making, and metallurgy, no sophisticated knowledge of mathematics and geometry in the Western sense, and no maps or blueprints in order to create what we see.
If my three decades of pilgrimage to the pampa have taught me anything, it is that to understand the Nasca lines we need to escape from the straitjacket of our own universe of discourse. The maze of lines and figures etched across the desert floor in a seemingly confusing manner is neither whimsical nor chaotic. The pampa isn't just a conglomeration of dysfunctional doodles on a gigantic scratchpad. There is order--a pattern and a system behind the geoglyphs--and it tells us about the people who lived there.
Anthony F. Aveni is the Russell B. Colgate professor of astronomy and anthropology at Colgate University. The article was adapted from his forthcoming book, Between the Lines: The Mystery of the Giant Ground Drawings of Ancient Nasca, Peru (Austin; University of Texas Press).