BY: MARI DE ARMAS
About 200 miles southeast from Lima, Peru, nestled between the Andes Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, you’ll find enormous lines etched into the desert. We’re talking about more than 800 straight lines, more than 300 geometric figures and roughly more than 70 animal and plant designs that as a collective were designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site known simply as the Nazca Lines.
The gargantuan symbols and figures (read: 1,000-foot pelican) were made by the Nazca people, who inhabited the area from around 200 BCE to 600 CE, pre-dating the Incas. This ancient society created their designs by removing the top few inches of rock to reveal the lighter-colored sand below. They likely began with small-scale models and carefully increased the models’ proportions to create the large designs. And because there’s so little rain, wind and erosion, the exposed designs have stayed largely intact for approximately 2,500 years.
These designs have caused a lot of head-scratching. The lines show an understanding of sophisticated mathematics and surveying techniques, leading many to question their origin. It is difficult to understand why a culture would dedicate so much time and effort to create art that they couldn’t see for themselves (as they are best seen from the air).
Theories range from irrigation systems to appeals to ancient Peruvians gods to the more far-fetched lore of these being landing strips for alien aircraft. One of the most viable theories of why these lines exist dates back to research that began in the 1940s by a history professor from Long Island University named Paul Kosok.
While standing near one of the drawings on winter solstice in 1941, he noticed that a straight line pointed directly at the setting sun. Six months later, German mathematician Maria Reiche, while helping Professor Kosok with his work, discovered another straight line that pointed to the sun during the summer solstice. This led them to believe that they had uncovered a celestial calendar and characterized the Nazca Lines as the world’s largest astronomy book.
Lady of the Lines
In 1948, Reiche took over Professor Kosok’s work and continued to document and protect the Nazca Lines by taking residency there in a small desert hut.
Over the next 50 years, she made it her life’s work to find a pattern or a system to all of the drawings. She painstakingly restored some of the glyphs that had been obscured by dust or debris and even became known for chasing tourists and vehicles off of the Lines. She also lectured extensively and wrote about her theory that these drawings not only correlated to the constellations, but also were tracking the sun’s path and position in the sky. In turn the Nazca would use their knowledge of the equinoxes to schedule when they should plant and harvest their crops.
Thanks to the tireless study and advocacy of Reiche, by the 1970s, the Nazca Lines became the second most important tourist destination in Peru, after Machu Picchu. And in 1994, at the age of 91, Reiche officially became a Peruvian citizen, the same year that the Nazca Lines were named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. While she has since passed on, her legacy endures as the Lady of the Lines.
Witnessing the Enigma
You don’t have to move into a desert hut to experience the wonder of the Nazca Lines. In fact, you can see a handful of the designs from El Mirador, a viewing platform next to the Pan American Highway. Yet, the full impact of the Nazca Lines can only truly be appreciated from the air. The whole collection of drawings spans 500 square kilometers and some of the geometric shapes are more than 6 miles across and some of the straight lines are more than 30 miles long, which is a lot of ground to cover. On your overflight, you can spot shapes like a hummingbird, a dog, hands, an astronaut, and more.
This is truly the adventure of a lifetime.