Cemetery in the desert, unearthing the Nazca

It’s not every day you’re privileged to look into the tombs of a 2000-year-old culture. Almost wholly preserved by both the arid desert and one of humankind’s first successful attempts at mummification, and a mere 30km south of the modern town of Nazca, lies the necropolis of Chauchilla – evidence that there is far more than just the Nazca Lines to occupy your time while you’re here.

Even after a few days to contemplate what we’d seen in the middle of the desert, it was almost impossible to fully grasp the significance of Chauchilla. A huge, ancient burial site that, despite extensive looting and a shocking degree of indifference from the government, is testament to a civilisation that we know precious little about.

Chauchilla cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Chauchilla cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Chauchilla cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Chauchilla cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Chauchilla cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Chauchilla cemetery, Nazca, Peru

The bodies that are on display at the site are remarkably well-preserved. In part this is down to the climate, but the Nazca also developed mummification techniques that have proved highly successful. You can still see well-preserved hair and skin, as well as cotton which was stuffed into the skull. A resin was also applied to the bodies that archeologists believe helped deter insects.

The tombs typically have a maximum of three occupants, the one above has an adult and two children. Sometimes children were sacrificed, beheaded and buried with a pumpkin as a head. Little is known about this gruesome ritual, and the child above has its own skull. Clay pots are common in the graves, filled with maize beer (chicha) and various foods.

Chauchilla cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Chauchilla cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Chauchilla cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Chauchilla cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Chauchilla cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Chauchilla cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Chauchilla cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Chauchilla cemetery, Nazca, Peru

The archeological importance of the site is mind-boggling, yet it is open to the elements and unprotected by any form of security except for the woman in the ticket office – and she goes home at 6pm. If the Chauchilla necropolis had been found in Europe it would receive millions of visitors every year and every sort of environmental and security protection available.

As you walk through the site its possible to see where graves have been looted (by the indentations in the earth), and almost everywhere you look there are human bones and broken shards of pottery scattered across the surface of the desert. There was a large sand storm sweeping in on high winds when we were there. When I got back to the hotel I could literally scrape sand off my skin and scalp; what it does to the burial site can only be guessed at.

Chauchilla cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Chauchilla cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Chauchilla cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Chauchilla cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Chauchilla cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Chauchilla cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Chauchilla cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Chauchilla cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Chauchilla cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Chauchilla cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Chauchilla cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Chauchilla cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Chauchilla cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Chauchilla cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Chauchilla cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Chauchilla cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Chauchilla cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Chauchilla cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Sadly we didn’t have time to go to any of the other ancient Nazca sites in the desert, including the religious and ceremonial site of Cahuachi which has several large pyramids that have been painstakenly unearthed and restored. Next time, next time!

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