Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise, the flight in a four-seater light aircraft over the Nazca Lines is probably the best way to spend US$110 in Peru – and yes, for those of you who may think I’ve erred in my calculation, I’ve included twenty rounds of 2-for-1 pisco sours into my thinking.
The Nazca’s monumental achievement constructing giant messages to the gods in the barren and inhospitable deserts of south-west Peru is nothing short of super-human. No number of photos of the Nazca Lines is sufficient preparation for the sight that awaits when you get into the air – and it is only from the air that they reveal their true glory.
Today it is almost impossible to imagine a thriving culture in this desert wasteland with soaring temperatures and very limited water resources. Yet, flying over the desert at anything between 300 and 3000 feet the entire area is littered with giant symbols, lines, animal and anthropomorphic figures that tell of a once mighty culture.
It almost never rains in the Nazca region, yet in the rainy season rainfall in the mountains to the east send brown rivers flowing through the area en route to the Pacific Ocean. This creates a green ribbon of life through the desert that supports lush agriculture, at least for some of the year.
The Nazca culture flourished for approximately 400 years from 200 AD, and was a direct descendent of an earlier culture, the Paracas. While there is a wealth of archeological evidence about the Nazca, particularly from the many graves found in the region containing pottery, metal objects and foodstuffs, we only have theories for the purpose of the Nazca Lines.
Ignoring odd-ball ideas about aliens and the Nazca being able to fly, the theory with most currency these days is that these giant symbols were intended for the Nazca gods, and were to promote fertility and rains – something common to all ancient cultures concerned with food, water and survival. Living in a desert, the Nazca had more reason than most to worry about survival.
The centre of the Nazca culture is only 80km away from the ocean and several of the animal representations relate to ocean creatures: a whale (below), killer whale and a representation of an octopus (below). In addition, the Nazca were linked through trade to the Amazon, and there are representations of Amazonian birds and a monkey on the desert floor.
What is clear when you see the lines is that they regularly collide or overlay each other. It seems the Nazca had no issue about ‘building’ over the top of older work. It is through this process that it is possible to tell that spirals were the earliest forms they created, giant trapezoids the last stage of the culture, with animals and other figures coming in-between.
One of the reasons some of the figures have only nine ‘fingers’ seems to be related to the cycle of human childbearing and fertility. The number ‘nine’ appears to have had special significance for the Nazca.
It is also clear that the lines have an astronomical purpose. Several of the figures are aligned with constellations, including the famous ‘monkey’ which has the Ursa Minor constellation integrated into its design. Clearly the Nazca studied the night sky like so many other early Latin American cultures.
To give a sense of the size, the ‘dog’ is 50 metres long, the ‘humming bird’ 97 metres long and the ‘flamingo’ 300 metres long. Yet the trapezoids measure anything up to 3km long.
It is a terrible shame that the Lines don’t reveal more to us, and that the Pan American Highway had been constructed right through the middle of a giant lizard before the Lines were re-discovered in the 1920s.
One thing is certain, the Nazca were skilled mathematicians, engineers and architects. Working from a template, the Nazca scaled up the final design by 200 times, using sticks, ropes and rocks to make their measurements. Maria Reiche, the archeologist most associated with the rediscovery of the Nazca Lines, discovered their basic unit of measurement. Called the Peruvian Metre, it measured 110 centimetres and each centimetre consisted of 11 millimetres.