Magnificent, mysterious, monumental: the Nazca Lines of Peru

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.

Plane brilliant, Nazca Lines, Peru
Plane brilliant, Nazca Lines, Peru

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.

A rainy season river in the Nazca desert, Nazca, Peru
A rainy season river in the Nazca desert, Nazca, Peru
The desert surrounding Nazca, Peru
The desert surrounding Nazca, Peru

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.

Trapezoid shape on the desert floor, Nazca, Peru
Trapezoid shape on the desert floor, Nazca, Peru
The Whale, Nazca Lines, Peru
The Whale, Nazca Lines, Peru
The Whale, Nazca Lines, Peru
The Whale, Nazca Lines, Peru
Octopus and small 'bird', Nazca, Peru
Octopus and small ‘bird’, Nazca, Peru

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.

Spiral, Nazca, Peru
Spiral, Nazca, Peru
The Monkey, Nazca, Peru
The Monkey, Nazca, Peru

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.

The 'Hands', Nazca, Peru
The ‘Hands’, Nazca, Peru

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.

The 'Dog' or 'Fox', Nazca, Peru
The ‘Dog’ or ‘Fox’, Nazca, Peru
The 'Humming Bird' , Nazca, Peru
The ‘Humming Bird’ , Nazca, Peru
The 'Humming Bird' , Nazca, Peru
The ‘Humming Bird’ , Nazca, Peru
The 'Frigate Bird', Nazca, Peru
The ‘Frigate Bird’, Nazca, Peru

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.

The 'Flamingo', Nazca, Peru
The ‘Flamingo’, Nazca, Peru
The 'Spider', Nazca, Peru
The ‘Spider’, Nazca, Peru
Plane wing and mountains, Nazca, Peru
Plane wing and mountains, Nazca, Peru
More tremendous views, Nazca, Peru
More tremendous views, Nazca, Peru
Coming in to land, Nazca, Peru
Coming in to land, Nazca, Peru

15 thoughts on “Magnificent, mysterious, monumental: the Nazca Lines of Peru

  1. OMG. Terrific photos. I know the place from my young hood, but never visited there. Your photos are awesome and they inspire a man to visit there.

    Thank You for this wonderful post.

    1. Thank you Sartenada. it is an amazing place, if you ever get the chance to see the lines, take it.

  2. Your pictures are amazing! I’m just wondering, how easy is it to hold your camera steady while in the aircraft. I’ve heard it’s a bumpy ride. Also, which flight company did you use?

    1. I’ve got quite a few blurred photos, but its fairly easy to take photos, and the flight was good – we went with Aero Palcazu, who were good and professional, but they all seemed similar. Beware the price, we paid literally half of what the other two people on our flight paid. Also, if you are in a four seater, try to get the seats behind the pilot, better windows from which to see everything. The plane tilts from side to side and I heard stories of people getting sick, but I didn’t find it too bad. It does get really hot in the plane though, which doesn’t help with motion sickness.

      1. Thanks very much for the advice! Really appreciated.

  3. These are incredible!! I’m going in May and can’t wait to see them. Thanks for the info and great photos 🙂

    1. Thanks Ardun. It is brilliant, I’m sure you’ll love it.

  4. How fun! And amazing that they drew those images in the ground and that they related to the constellations! I’m tellin’ ya… Sometimes I wonder if we’re getting smarter or stupider as time goes by… Really really cool!

    1. If the museum I went to about how they managed their water resources is anything to go by, we are definitely getting stupider, or at least more reckless.

      1. Maybe a little bit of both?

  5. I’m really envious!! Somehow, I think the real story behind all this will far outreach even the most outlandish explanation. 🙂

    1. I hope there will be a day when we can see the whole picture – preferably in my life time! What I think is true is that the Nazca created a thriving civilisation in the harshest of climates and the lines are an expression of that.

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