The origins of Peru’s mysterious Nasca Lines

In the desert of southern Peru, giant etchings of spiders, whales, people and trapezoids stretching across 450sqkm have adorned the landscape for 2,000 years.

Preserved by the hot sun and a dry climate, the Nasca Lines have been embedded with mystery ever since the Nasca civilization collapsed, around 600 AD. The ancient Nascas scratched their drawings into the sand by digging away at the dark stones that covered the surface. The manmade wonder that resulted was a collection of shapes and pictures only discernable from great heights. The question of why has lingered over these images for centuries.

The discovery that the Lines formed distinct, recognizable images only came when the advent of commercial aviation allowed people to fly over the massive etchings. Since then, archaeologists, historians, geophysicists and travellers have wondered what these lines mean and why the Nasca people took so much time, energy and care to engrave them into the earth. Were the lines created for irrigation? For roads? As part of an astrological calendar? As landing strips for extra-terrestrials?

It wasn’t until recently that scientists began to understand the origins of these lines drawn in the sand. A team led by archaeologist Christina Conlee of Texas State University excavated a body which had no head. The body had been buried honourably inside a tomb in a seated position, leading Conlee and her colleagues to believe that this person died in a ritual human sacrifice. As they lived in an extremely dry region, the Nasca people were in a constant struggle for water, so their prayers and rituals almost always revolved around the need for water, historians believe.

Buried along with the body was a painted ceramic funerary pot. This and other pieces of excavated pottery revealed a connection between the headless body and the Nasca Lines. Images painted on the pots, like that of a killer whale, strongly resemble their large-scale counterpart sketched into the land. These findings support previous conjectures by scientists that the Nasca performed ceremonies in the lines and geoglyphs – ceremonies they hoped would result in water for their society.

As more and more is uncovered about the ancient civilization that once lived on this arid coastal plain, the Nasca Lines will continue to be a source of intrigue for academics and ordinary people. Travellers to Peru can only hope that preservation efforts can make this archaeological treasure last for generations to come.

Today, the Nasca Lines are a World Heritage Site attracting curious tourists and academics from around the world. But the etchings may be under threat. Nasca’s incredible lines and geoglyphs have been placed on the World Monument Fund’s 2012 Watch list.

According to Popular Archaeology, among the culprits are unregulated private flights, looting, nearby mining and waste disposal, climate change and the lack of proper infrastructure for tourism. Environmentalists worry that these factors could leave the Nasca Lines vulnerable to severe weather events such as flooding.

As a result, the Ministry of Culture is working on a master plan to regulate tourism and industrial activity in the area. Included in that plan will likely be tactics for responding to flooding caused by El Niño and La Niña climate patterns.

Several tour operators offer trips to Nasca, and a few bill themselves as eco-tourism businesses. Outfitters Eco Service Tours and Sacred Earth Travel offer three-day tours to view the geoglyphs both from above and up-close on the ground.

Preserving the Nasca Lines should be in the Peruvian government’s best interest. The alluring history of these cryptic lines could have the potential to rival Machu Picchu as a tourist destination.

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