Nazca: Decoding The Riddle Of The Lines

Brien Foerster,
Waking Times

The lines of Nazca, as well as the animal and plant geoglyphs associated with them, are amongst the most mysterious ancient works of pre-Colombian Peru, and in fact the world. Far less famous perhaps than the pyramids of Giza in Egypt, or Stonehenge in England, they do fit into the same class as these enigmas, as none of them have been completely decoded.

Ranked probably third in terms of popular ancient places to visit in Peru, with Machu Pic’chu clearly being number one and the Lake Titicaca area number two, Nazca receives hundreds of thousands of tourists per year. Those with the stomach for it fly over the vast Nazca plain in order to observe the mysterious etchings from the air. And others, somewhat apprehensive of climbing into a small plane in a foreign country tend to be satisfied with viewing a couple of the geoglyphs and some of the lines from a tower on the side of the highway.

The Nazca Lines are located in the Nazca Desert in southern Peru, relatively close to the Pacific Ocean. They were designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994. The high, arid Nazca plateau stretches more than 80 kilometers (50 mi) between the towns of Nazca and Palpa on the Pampas de Jumana about 400 km south of Lima, the capital of Peru.

Nazca is one of the driest places in the world with average annual precipitation up to a meager 25 millimeters (about 1 inch.) Its weather is controlled by the Humboldt Current which carries water from Antarctica up the west coast of South America. This cold ocean water cools the marine air and limits the accumulation of moisture within clouds, and as a result though clouds and fog are able to form there is little rain and the region is exceptionally arid.

  • The Nazca culture (also Nasca) is thought by many archaeologists to have been the civilization which flourished from approximately 100 BC to about 600 AD in the river valleys of the Rio Grande de Nazca drainage and the Ica Valley. Having been heavily influenced by the preceding Paracas culture, which was known for extremely complex textiles, the Nazca produced an array of beautiful crafts and technologies such as ceramics, textiles, and perhaps the famous geoglyphs which bear their name.

    However, a major theory that my book puts forward is not only questioning the time frame of the Nazca culture, but also their achievements. The key expert on this subject is Sr. Juan Navarro, director of the Paracas History Museum, in the small town of Chaco, located next to the Paracas National Reserve. Though not a credentialed academic, Sr. Juan grew up in the area, and has spent many decades studying the pre-Colombian cultures that lived there. These cultures spanned more than 2000 years, and included, in chronological order the Paracas, Nazca, Wari (Huari), Chincha and Inca.

    It is unclear when the first people inhabited the Nazca area. In terms of actual organized cultures, it has been populated by sedentary groups at least since the Formative Period (Initial Period, 1800-800 BC, and the Paracas culture, 800 BC to perhaps 100 AD). In the Early Intermediate Period (200 BC to 600 AD), the region flourished under the Nazca Culture. At the end of the Nazca Period extreme desertification led to a cultural decline. It was not until the Late Intermediate Period (1000 to 1450 AD), in a phase of increasing pluviality (increased rainfall), that the regional population increased again. The groups that moved in were the Wari (Huari) from the highlands to the east, then the Chincha from coastal Peru to the north, and finally the Inca. The great mystery of the Nazca area is of course, who made the lines and geoglyph animal and plant formations, and when? The Inca were not known for such enterprises, nor were the preceding cultures of Chincha or Wari people. Thus, it must have been the Nazca, or someone even earlier.

    Nazca Spider

    Before we approach the subject of when they were made, let’s see why the Nazca died out as a civilization. Archaeologists examining the remains of the Nazca have uncovered a sequence of human induced events which led to their catastrophic collapse around 500 AD. Experts have struggled to explain why a society which clearly prospered during the first half of the first Millennium AD then collapsed into a bloody resource war and eventually vanished.

    Some have argued that a “mega El Nino,” which hit the region at around that time, and could have lasted many years may have been the cause. The El Nino/La Nina Southern Oscillation is a band of anomalously warm ocean water temperatures that occasionally develops off the western coast of South America, especially Peru and Ecuador and can cause climatic changes across the Pacific Ocean. Writing in the journal Latin American Antiquity, however, a team of researchers led by Dr. David Beresford-Jones from the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at Cambridge University, suggest that the Nazca inadvertently wrought their own demise. Using plant remains gathered in the lower Ica Valley, the team found evidence that over the course of many generations, the Nazca cleared areas of forest to make way for their own agriculture. Studies of pollen samples taken by co-researcher Alex Chepstow-Lusty, of the French Institute of Andean Studies in Lima, showed that the huarango tree, which once covered what is now a desert area, was gradually replaced by crops such as cotton and maize. In the absence of huarango cover, whose roots fix nitrogen, when El Nino did strike, the river down cut into its floodplain, Nazca irrigation systems were damaged and the area became unworkable for agriculture. Thus, the people either perished, or were forced to move.

    Contrary to the popular belief that the lines and figures can only be seen with the aid of flight, they, or at least some are visible from atop the surrounding foothills. They were first discovered by the Peruvian archaeologist Toribio Mejia Xesspe, who spotted them when hiking through the foothills in 1927. He later discussed them at a conference in Lima in 1939. Xesspe Mejia was one of the foremost disciples of Julio C. Tello, whom he accompanied in the scans and the archaeological excavations carried out across the country.

    Paul Kosok, a historian from Long Island University in the United States is credited as the first scholar to seriously study the Nazca Lines. In the country in 1940 to 41 to study ancient irrigation systems, he flew over the lines and realized that one was in the shape of a bird. Another chance helped him see how lines converged at the winter solstice in the Southern Hemisphere. He began to study how the lines might have been created, as well as to try to determine their purpose. He was joined by Maria Reiche, a German mathematician and archaeologist to help figure out the purpose of the Nazca Lines.

    Determining how they were made has been easier than figuring why they were made. Scholars have theorized the Nazca people could have used simple tools and surveying equipment to construct the lines. Archaeological surveys have found wooden stakes in the ground at the end of some lines, which support this theory. One such stake was carbon dated and was the basis for establishing the age of the design complex. However, dating one stake can hardly be hard enough evidence for dating all of the lines and figures.

    Maria Reiche, who is most famous for studying the Nazca phenomenon and did so for more than 50 years had her own thoughts as regards How old the lines and figures were;

    ‘The people who made the Nazca drawings lived in different valleys over a period of 3,000 years or more and left as a testament to their existence millions of layers in which are found fine gold and silver work, excellent pottery, and the finest cloth in the world. We do not know when they made the drawings. The immense quantity of drawings, each executed with utmost precision, must have taken at least half a generation to make. A Carbon 14 test made on a stick found at the end of a quadrangle in a heap of stones gives the year 550 AD, but I am sure that they are much older than that! We know that the drawing activity extended through the time of the Inca because there are several drawings which are typical to the Inca style, sometimes drawn over older smaller figures, which are still visible underneath. This way, the drawing activity very well could have been extended over 2,000 years or more.’

    The fact that the majority of the Nazca Plain is as flat as a tabletop, making a straight line is not very complicated, and could have been done by very simple surveying techniques, using as little as three sticks. One stick would be places in the ground, vertically, and then another in front of it, in the desired direction. Then a third stick would be placed ahead of the first two, in direct line, much like a fence is often mapped out. The first stick could then be removed, and be put some distance in front of the third, and so on. If one wished to make sure that the line was maintaining its straightness, the first stick could remain in place until the job was ended, ensuring accuracy. Not exactly a pursuit requiring “alien intervention.”

    The scholar Joe Nickell of the University of Kentucky has reproduced the figures by using tools and technology available to the Nazca people. The National Geographic called his work “remarkable in its exactness” when compared to the actual lines. With careful planning and simple technologies, a small team of people could recreate even the largest figures within days, without any aerial assistance. Nickell states: ‘By far the most work on the problem of Nazca engineering methods has been done by Maria Reiche. She explains that Nazca artists prepared preliminary drawings on small six foot square plots. These plots are still visible near many of the larger figures. The preliminary drawing was then broken down into its component parts for enlargement. Straight lines, she observed, could be made by stretching a rope between two stakes. Circles could easily be scribed by means of a rope anchored to a rock or stake, and more complex curves could be drawn by linking appropriate areas. As proof, she reports that there are indeed stones or holes at points that are centers for arcs.’


    The work of Nickell shows that in theory the animal figures could have been made using a scale drawing or other related technique, and does debunk the idea that they could only have been achieved with the designer being in the air, such as in a primitive balloon, or “flying saucer.” When the surface iron oxide rich stones and gravel are removed the light colored whitish yellow clay earth which is exposed in the bottom of the trench produces lines which contrast sharply in color and tone with the surrounding land surface, thus creating contrast.

    Even though Maria Reiche spent more than 50 years attempting to show direct relationships on the ground with some kind of cosmic reflection and relationships, as in relationships with star formations, computer modeling showed no direct correlation to specific constellations.

    Anthony Aveni believed that the lines pointed to water sources. He suggested that the eight hundred miles (1,300 kilometers) worth of straight lines map the direction of water sources and the highly advanced irrigation system which the Nazca had produced. Two thirds of the lines seem to follow channels of the irrigation system.

    By 1998, Phyllis B. Pitluga, a protege of Reiche and senior astronomer at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, had concluded that the animal figures were representations of heavenly shapes. But she contends that they are not shapes of constellations but of what might be called counter constellations, the irregular shaped dark patches within the twinkling expanse of the Milky Way. In 1985, the archaeologist Johan Reinhard published archaeological, ethnographic, and historical data demonstrating that worship of mountains and other water sources predominated in the Nazca religion and economy from ancient to recent times. He theorized that the lines and figures were part of religious practices involving the worship of deities associated with the availability of water, which directly related to the success and productivity of crops.

    According to the work of David Johnson, and described in his book Beneath The Nasca Lines and Other Coastal Geoglyphs of Peru and Chile the Nazca Lines consistently map the source and course of aquifers. Five components were consistently present at each location, as if part of an equation; faults, aquifers, fresh water sources, geoglyphs and archaeological sites. Where one or more of these features are found there is a high probability the others are present. He realized the Nazca Lines are a text imprinted into the landscape providing the inhabitants of the region, both past and present, with the solution to their water problems.

    Jim Woodmann believes that the Nazca lines could not have been made without some form of manned flight to see the figures properly. Based on his study of available technology, he suggests that a hot air balloon was the only possible means of flight. To test this hypothesis, Woodmann made a hot-air balloon using materials and techniques that he understood to be available to the Nazca people, such as native cotton. The balloon flew, after a fashion, for a short period of time, but not enough to seem a credible theory. Most scholars have rejected Woodmann’s thesis because of the lack of any evidence of such balloons.

    One of the most famous, and some would say audacious ideas as to what the Nazca lines and figures mean, and how they were created is that of Erich von Daniken who suggests the Nazca lines and other complex constructions represent higher technological knowledge than commonly believed to be existing when the glyphs were created. Von Daniken maintains that the Nazca lines in Peru are runways of an ancient airfield that was used by extraterrestrials mistaken by the natives to be their gods. His theory has not been accepted by scholars.

    Evan Hadingham proposed that the ancient Nazca priests used powerful hallucinogenic concoctions that made them adept at “out of body” experiences. He theorized that the priests, or shamans, were able to transform into spirits and fly above the land. To amuse them or possibly honor them, the giant line art was created. The predominant medicinal and hallucinogenic drug of this area in ancient times was procured from the San Pedro cactus.

    Since the lines and geoglyphs can not be directly dated by any known methods, then were they necessarily all made by the same people, as in the Nazca? Henri Stierlin, a Swiss art historian specializing in Egypt and the Middle East, published a book in 1983 linking the Nazca Lines to the production of ancient textiles that archeologists have found wrapping mummies of the Paracas culture.

    The major cemeteries of the Paracas were at Cerro Colorado, Cabeza Larga (which is Spanish for elongated head), Chongos and Camacho, which are all found in the vicinity of the Paracas Peninsula, about a 4 hour drive north west of Nazca. It is here too that the famous Candelabra can be found, a 500 foot tall trident shaped geoglyph which can only be observed from the ocean.


    It appears to have been made using the same techniques as the Nazca figures and lines, and some researchers have stated that the three fork like projections of its “trident” design face Nazca to the southeast, but this is not the case. The Candelabra is in fact directed due south.

    According to most sources, the Paracas had an extensive knowledge of irrigation and water management, and their territory extended from the area of Chincha in the north down to at least as far as Nazca. Evidence suggests that the Topara culture is thought to have invaded from the north at approximately 150 BC. The two cultures, Paracas and Topara presumably coexisted for one or more generations, both at the massive adobe complex of Cahuachi near Nazca city and in the nearby Ica Valley, and that their interaction played a key role in the development of the Nazca culture and ceramic and textile traditions.


    Palpa is a small agricultural town located about 60 kilometers north of Nazca on the Pan Americana highway and is thus in between the Paracas peninsula and Nazca. More and more evidence is indicating that the numerous Palpa lines and figures found in the area were created by the Paracas culture, before the presumed existence of the Nazca lines and the Nazca culture.

    The reason the geoglyphs of Palpa received less attention than those of Nazca may be because the geography of Palpa and Nazca are significantly different. The Palpa region is strewn with continuous abrupt peaks, quite different from the pampa of Nazca where sands and stone stretch out endlessly over a plain which affords a great deal of visibility. Figures drawn on the mountain side in the Palpa region are less visible, and even disappear depending upon the direction from which they are viewed. Karsten Lambers, who is a German archaeologist has been mapping and studying the geoglyphs of the Palpa area since 1999, and has so far found at least 1500 geoglyphs over an area of 89 square kilometers.


    So far, we have seen that the area covered by geoglyphs in this area of Peru is immense. They begin with the Candelabra of Paracas, next to the Pacific Ocean, and extend, in a southeast fashion through Palpa to the Nazca area. The cultures involved in the whole process appear to be the Paracas, and then there is a progression into the Nazca via the Topara culture. In my opinion the Nazca lines and figures were not created solely by the Nazca people, and not entirely within the time span of about 1 AD to 500 AD. They are part of a much larger geographic fabric of land which begins at the Candelabra in Paracas, extends through Palpa, and ends up in the Nazca pampa. The Paracas would have been the first to create the shapes, especially the Candelabra and at Palpa, and over time the works progressed into Nazca. As incredible artisans of mysterious origin the Paracas may have simply been creating fanciful designs on hillsides, but why depictions of humans with extensions coming out their heads at Palpa is a matter of conjecture.

    The Topara moved in and amalgamated with them, forming a new culture which became known as the Nazca. Again, I believe that this was not a peaceful alliance, but resulted in the overthrow of the Paracas and their lands. Evidence of this I suggest is the disappearance of the elongated skull cranial deformation phenomena which was a hall mark of the Paracas elite. Also, much of the Nazca art form can be directly attributed to the earlier Paracas, as the ceramic works of the pre-Nazca Topara was much cruder in form and embellishment.

    Following along this thread of logic, the early Paracas line and geoglyph works may have been created as expressions of art and spirituality as well as perhaps for celestial observations, and then the later Nazca, with food resources dwindling from the decimation of the huarango trees and El Nino effects made the lines as a way to map the underground streams of the area. Major lines may have been made prior to this act of civil engineering as pathways to distant outposts as trade routes, and as well to map solar, lunar and stellar alignments.

    And that could be why so many theories have arisen. No one hypothesis can adequately explain the entire Nazca geoglyph phenomenon, and thus the explanation probably comes from different constructions over the course of several centuries, by different people for varied reasons.

    About the Author

    Brien Foerster is a researcher and the author of several books including, Nazca: Decoding The Riddle Of The Lines. “My book about Nazca, as well as 13 others is available through and And my wife and I occasionally run tours in Peru, Bolivia, Egypt and Easter Island, focusing on the enigmatic sites that confound conventional academics via”

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