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Rituals of the Nasca Lines Volume 62 Number 3, May/June 2009
by Andrew Curry

New excavations reveal the purpose and origin of the famed geoglyphs


This excavation of a site near the lines at Pernil Alto in the Palpa Valley turned up evidence of a pre-Nasca settlement. (Photo: Andrew Curry)

It was a little after eight in the morning and the sun was still low on the horizon. Jammed in the back of a six-seat Cessna Stationair flying low over Peru's Atacama Desert, I felt a rush of air. Glancing up, I saw the pilot holding the plane's window open with his left hand while steering us into a tight, banking turn with his right. Soon I spotted a wide, straight line that extended for hundreds of yards then turned 90 degrees to the left. Next to it lay the faint outlines of a whale traced in stone. It was one of the Nasca lines.


Oyster (Spondylus) shells were crafted into ornaments and left as sacrifices in Nasca water rituals. (Photo: Andrew Curry)

Created by Peru's Nasca culture between 400 B.C. and A.D. 600, the lines have puzzled researchers since they were first noticed by pilots in the 1930s. How could a prehistoric culture have made designs that are essentially invisible from ground level--and why? After a decade-long effort, an international team of archaeologists, geologists, chemists, and even computer scientists from Germany, Switzerland, and Austria say they've cracked the secrets of the lines, revealing how they were constructed and why. If they're right, it could lay to rest a 60-year-old debate over whether the Nasca used the lines as astronomical observatories or water maps, or for some other purpose entirely.


Archaeologists are using high-resolution digital images to create detailed maps of the lines, shown here in orange, made by the Nasca and Paracas cultures. (Photo: Courtesy Prof. Dr. Armin Gruen, ETH Zurich, Institute of Geodesy and Photogrammetry)

In 1997, German archaeologist Markus Reindel, a South America specialist now at the German Archaeological Institute's Commission for Non-European Cultures, teamed up with Peruvian archaeologist Johnny Isla of the Andean Institute of Archaeological Research to conduct a scientific investigation of the lines. They decided to start not in the Nasca Valley but in an area around the town of Palpa, 25 miles to the north. "When the lines were created, Palpa and Nasca were the same culturally and geographically," says Isla.


The geoglyphs on a hillside near the town of Llipata, Peru, were made by the Paracas culture, a custom that continued into the Nasca period. (Photo: Markus Reindel, DAI)

Working away from the intense scrutiny that surrounds the more famous Nasca lines gave the researchers more freedom. "The lines [in Palpa] had never really been documented, never really scientifically studied," Reindel says. "As an archaeologist, it was really exciting to design a project from scratch." Soon Reindel and Isla had engineers and computer imaging experts soaring above the Palpa Valley taking high-resolution digital images of the geoglyphs that cover the valley's floor and its steep, rocky sides. Mapping the valley allowed the researchers to pinpoint the relationship of the lines to settled areas, water sources, and potential astronomical patterns.

Why were the lines made? Reindel is certain the lines had something to do with water rituals, and like Colgate University's Anthony Aveni, he found no evidence to support the idea that they were maps or astronomical charts. He is dismissive of researchers who make sweeping conclusions about what the Nasca used the lines for. The comprehensive look at the Palpa Valley sites--more than 650 settlements were documented--uncovered clues to another mystery: What happened to the complex culture that created the lines? Sitting in the dig house one night, Reindel told me eagerly about the next phase of the project. He expects to spend 10 years leading a series of small excavations that will extend over the length of the Palpa River drainage, from 12,500-foot mountain highlands to the sea, in hopes of finding out how civilizations grew and developed in the area.

Andrew Curry is a contributing editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.