Unlocking The Mystery Of Peru’s Massive Nazca Lines

Published May 6, 2018
Updated May 7, 2018

Dating back to 500 B.C., the Nazca lines have been called the "Eighth Wonder of the World".

Nazca Lines

Paul Williams/FlickrThe Condor, one of the 70 plant and animal geoglyphs or “ground drawings.”

Advancements in technology have led to some startling discoveries in archaeology. Archaeology has long drawn from other fields, and recently drones and satellites have become as important a tool for archaeologists as a trowel and shovel.

In fact, initiatives such as GlobalXplorer, founded by “space archaeologist” Sarah Parcak, allow citizen researchers to get in on the job by analyzing satellite images for archaeological features and to identify signs of looting of heritage sites.

For their first project, volunteers analyzed satellite imagery in the Peruvian desert.

“When we were thinking about countries to go to … it had to be a country that everyone in the world would know is important,” said Parcak, who works at the University of Alabama in Birmingham.

For the task, they chose one of archaeology’s most iconic and enigmatic sites: the Nazca lines, which is often viewed as the Eighth Wonder of the World.

What Are The Nazca Lines?

The Astronaut Nazca Line

ilkerender/FlickrA humanoid figure nicknamed “The Astronaut.”

The Nazca lines, referred to as geoglyphs or “ground drawings,” are characterized by a massive series of lines that run parallel for miles while also being wavy and crisscrossing. They often form into one of over 300 different geometric patterns including 70 animal and plant forms. Perhaps the most well known and intriguing etching is that of a humanoid figure nicknamed “The Astronaut.”

In 2018, GlobalXplorer sent drones over the 37-mile-long and one-mile wide desert canvas where these lines are etched between the Inca and Nazca Valleys. In their findings, they discovered over 50 new ground drawings in the adjacent province of Palpa. The use of low altitude drone photography captured lines invisible to the human eye.

Though some of the new geoglyphs are attributed to the enigmatic Nazca culture who dominated the area between 200 and 700 A.D., archaeologists believe many were formed by the earlier Paracas and Topara cultures from 500 B.C. to 200 A.D.

There are distinct differences between the geoglyphs of the Nazca and the Paracas cultures in particular, while the Topara culture was a transitional culture between the two. While the Nazca geoglyphs are mostly discernible from the sky, the Paracas figures were etched into hillsides so they could be viewed from the villages below. Furthermore, the Paracas etchings primarily depict humans over the predominant straight lines of the Nazca.

Despite the new discoveries, fascination remains focused on the Nazca lines. To create the lines, the Nazca people removed 12 to 15 inches of parched, rust-colored earth to reveal a starkly contrasted light colored sand. These outlines have remained largely unaltered for the past 500 to 2,000 years due to stable weather conditions in the region.

What Do The Nazca Lines Mean?

Erich Von Daniken

Wikimedia CommonsErich Von Daniken who proposes that the Nazca lines are an ancient airport for extraterrestials.

How they were made is clear enough but why they were made remains a mystery. They seem to have been made to be interpreted from high above the Earth. Were they messages to their gods, some sort of astrological calendar, or something else entirely?

Researchers have formulated a number of theories around their meaning since the Nazca lines were re-discovered in modern times by Peruvian archaeologist Toribio Meija Xesspe in 1926.

On June 22, 1941, just one day after the winter solstice, American historian Paul Kosok noticed the sunset in direct alignment with one of the lines. Kosok said he had stumbled on the world’s largest astronomy book. In 1946, his student and German mathematician and archaeologist, Maria Reiche developed Kosok’s ideas that the Nazca plain was a large observatory and the lines pointed to where celestial bodies rose and set on the horizon.

Unfortunately, the theory was disproven in 1968 by American astronomer Gerald Hawkins, who found that only a few lines corresponded with solar, lunar, and stellar alignments, which likely occurred by chance.

Then at least some modicum of reason was supplanted by Swiss pseudoarchaeologist and best-selling author Erich von Daniken in his 1968 book Chariots of the Gods. He used the Nazca lines as one part of an elaborate — though ridiculous sounding theory — that ancient societies had been in contact with advanced alien races who taught them everything they knew.

Von Daniken theorized that the Nazca lines were an extra-terrestrial airport for these aliens. Absurdly enough, the idea actually originated in jest from Kosok who in 1947 wrote:

“When first viewed from the air, [the lines] were nicknamed prehistoric landing fields and jokingly compared with the so-called canals on Mars.”

The alien hypotheses haven’t died down much since then with internet-based conjecture, television series such as Ancient Aliens, and a plethora of books from self-styled UFO researchers.

However, more recently some researchers have attributed the lines to rituals for more rainfall as the region only experiences about 20 minutes of precipitation annually. The lines and trapezoids may apparently be related to water and pleading to the gods for rain.

In 1988, Johan Reinhard, a former National Geographic Explorer-in-residence, compiled possible meanings behind specific bimorphs. Drawing on animal symbolism found in the Andes, he has surmised that spiders, hummingbirds, and monkeys represent rain, fertility, and an abundance of water respectively.

But the idea, like the rest, has remained unproven.


Next, read about why some people think Ancient Sumerians were visited by aliens. Then, unlock the mysteries of the Georgia Guidestones, America’s stonehenge.

Daniel Rennie
Daniel Rennie is a freelance writer residing in Melbourne, Australia.
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