The Nazca Lines are geoglyphs located in an arid coastal area of Peru that cover an estimated 170 square miles (450 square kilometers).

Scratched on the ground, they number in the thousands and depict creatures from both the natural world and the human imagination. They include animals such as the spider, hummingbird, monkey, lizard, pelican and even a killer whale. Also depicted are plants, trees, flowers and oddly shaped fantastic figures. Illustrated throughout are geometric motifs such as wavy lines, triangles, spirals and rectangles.

Despite being studied for over 82 years, the geoglyphs—which were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994—are still a mystery to researchers.

The vast majority of the lines date from 200 BC to 500 AD, to a time when a people referred to as the Nazca inhabited the region. The earliest lines, created with piled up stones, date as far back as 500 BC.

The Nazca people were an ancient prehistoric culture that was successful in using engineering techniques to bring underground water to the surface for irrigation. One of their largest settlements is Cahuachi, a place of ceremony that overlooks some of the lines. It contains more than 40 mounds, including pyramids made of adobe.

The Nazca Lines represent “one of the most attractive ancient mysteries in the world.”

The purpose of why the Nazca built the lines continues to be debated by Anthropologists, ethnologists, and archaeologists. Some theories suggest that they were created to be seen by deities in the sky, a form of irrigation/water flow, while others suggest that they were some sort of calendar with astronomical alignments. Similar to causeways in the Stonehenge landscape in Salisbury Plain England, another theory suggests that they were pathways for ceremonial processions.

The first published mention of the Nazca Lines was by Pedro Cieza de León (a Spanish conquistador and chronicler of Peru) in his book of 1553, where he mistook them for trail markers. The lines would remain relatively obscure from history until Peruvian archaeologist Toribio Mejia Xesspe brought the lines to the world’s attention at a conference in Lima in 1939 after spotting the lines whilst hiking in the nearby hills.

In 2011, a Japanese team discovered a new geoglyph that appears to represent a scene of decapitation, which, at about 4.2 meters long and 3.1 meters wide, is far smaller than other Nazca figures and not easily seen from aerial surveys. The Nazca people were known to collect “trophy heads,” and research in 2009 revealed that the majority of trophy skulls came from the same populations as the people they were buried with (rather than outside cultures).

In 2016, the same team found another geoglyph, this time one that depicts a 98-foot-long (30-meter-long) mythical creature that has many legs and spotted markings, and is sticking out its tongue.

And in 2018, Peruvian archaeologists announced they had discovered more than 50 new geoglyphs in the region, using drone technology to map the landmarks in unprecedented detail.

Nazca Lines and Aliens?

Toribio Mejia Xesspe, a Peruvian archaeologist, began a systematic study of the lines in 1926, but the geoglyphs only gained widespread attention when pilots flew over them in the 1930s. Experts have debated the purpose of the Nazca Lines since then.

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, American historian Paul Kosok studied the geoglyphs from the ground and air. Based on the relative position of one of the lines he studied to the sun around the winter solstice, he concluded that the geoglyphs had an astronomy-related purpose.

Soon after, María Reiche, a German archaeologist and translator, also concluded that the designs had an astronomical and calendrical purpose. She further believed that some of the animal geoglyphs were representative of groups of stars in the sky.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, however, other researchers, including American astronomer Gerald Hawkins, examined the Nazca Lines and disagreed with the astronomical explanation for the geoglyphs. They also poked holes in other far-out explanations, such as those relating to aliens or ancient astronauts.

Conservation Issues

Unlike other relics throughout the world, the Nazca Lines are largely spared from unintentional destruction, thanks to their location. But the geoglyphs aren’t completely safe.

In 2009, the Nazca Lines suffered the first recorded instance of rain damage. Heavy downpours flowing off the Pan-American Highway—a network of roads that connects nearly all countries in the Americas with a Pacific coast—deposited sand and clay onto three fingers of the hand-shaped geoglyph.

Five years later, environmental group Greenpeace damaged an area near the hummingbird geoglyph during a media stunt. The activists disturbed the upper layer of rocks by the hummingbird when they trampled through the forbidden area of the desert to lay down a large sign that promotes renewable energy.

The Nazca Lines still remain a mystery as to their signifigance and continue to be researched.

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