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Wanted: A Solution to the Puzzle in the Desert

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Monica sets off for an aerial view of the Nazca animal designs
Facts: You are striding across the desert, in the San Jose pampa of Nazca, 450 km south of Lima. It is almost dawn on June 21st, and the air is cool and dry. Beneath you, in the coming light, you notice a collection of lines, both rounded and straight, gleaming yellowish against the dark dust. Cleared of stones, with the crusty upper layer of soil brushed away, these lines look like regular paths at ground level. You climb up the hill for a better look, and realize that from above, the lines form a design of a giant bird, 450 ft. long! Whatís more, the birdís beak seems to point directly in alignment with the rising sun! And wait, there is a 275 ft. design of a monkey! And over there is an enormous spider design! What could it mean?

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Some of the designs you'll find at Nazca
Possible solution: Maria Reiche, a German archaeologist and mathematician, called this bird the "Announcer of Inti Raymi," and considered this and other huge designs found over 3.6 million square meters of the pampa to be a sort of astronomical calendar. For example, she believes that the birdís beak heralds Inti Raymi, the greatest Inca festival, which celebrates the summer solstice and is held on June 24th. She theorized that near the monkey, a straight area, which she called a "pista," pointed to a star in the handle of the Ursa Major, or Big Dipper constellation. She speculated that the giant spider design with a line through it might have pointed to Orion.

Kevin and Monica in the plane
"Flying is the only way you can see the full beauty of the figures," Reiche has said. Kevin and I took her advice and caught a plane at 7:30am to view some of the designs on the pampa. There are three types of designs, or "geoglyphs": straight lines, designs, and figures made of heaped rocks. There are about 1300 km (806 miles) of straight lines in varying widths and lengths. Some continue, perfectly straight, for more than 20 km (12.4 miles), running parallel to each other or at angles. These lines often radiate out from hills, forming a starburst effect. These hills are called "ray centers", and about 62 of these ray centers are connected by long lines to watered oasises, like an early highway that Nazcans almost certainly walked along.

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A hummingbird, one of the many animal line designs at Nazca
We saw huge pictures of animals and plants and geometrical figures: a condor with wings spread wide, a lizard, a pair of hands, a bird with a zig-zag tail, and a whale, as well as perfect rectangles, spirals, and triangles - about 300 designs in all. We could also see figures on the hillsides, created by clearing rocks and heaping stones in piles, such as a picture of two llamas and their pen. Who made these lines? Why were they used?

No one really knows all the answers. You could probably recreate an experiment that Peruvian schoolchildren tried in 1988. They found that it takes about 21,000 person-hours to create a simple line. All that needs to be done is to remove darker-colored stones from the surface, exposing the lighter soil beneath. If you have a free hour, you and 20,999 of your friends could make your own hometown lines. The designs can be made by placing posts in the ground and stringing sisal cord between the posts as markers. The entire monkey, for example, can be created with two triangle markers. Amusingly enough, a standard measurement tends to crop up, a suggested unit of 1.1 centimeters or 0.43 inches that some people call the "Peruvian centimeter." This unit repeats itself in many of the drawings. So youíd have to ditch the yardstick or ruler and use this instead of meters or feet.

Reiche, who died more than a year ago and earned the title "Lady of the Lines" for her six decades of studying the lines, believed that the Nazca lines were used as an agricultural reminder -- kind of like a Things to Do list. For example, when the sun sets directly along one particular line, announcing the coming of spring, the people who lived in this coastal valley knew to prepare their irrigation channels and aqueducts. They knew to ready their seeds because the rain would soon arrive and it would be time for planting. Many of these figures connect prominently to water, which is a life-giving force here in the southern coastal desert. Water drains off the Andes and runs towards the ocean, and some trapezoidal figures that have been found are oriented along stream courses. Reiche believed the lines were made by the earlier Paracas and the later Nazca cultures from 900BC to 600AD, with additions by Wari settlers from the highlands, around 800AD.


As a mathematician, Reiche accounted for the earthís "wobble" in her calculations. You donít feel this wobble, because it happens every 26,000 years. The earth spins around an axis of rotation, which, as you know, gives us day and night. That axis of rotation also changes its tilt, then rights itself, every 26,000 years. Because of this, certain lines that would have pointed to the Pleiades, for example, in 610 AD, wouldnít point to the Pleiades anymore in 1999. Alongside the Orion-pointing line in the spider geoglyph, for instance, are a series of lines, in a fan shape, that might have been the Nazcaís efforts to keep up, over 500 years, with the earthís "wobble".

Check out some more pictures I took from high above! More of Monica's pictures of the Nazca lines
Why were these lines made? Between 1963 and 1965, Gerald Hawkins used a supercomputer to show that Stonehenge, in England, is possibly a type of moon chronometer: the moon shows in 5 of the main archways every 18.6 years. Hawkins came to Peru in 1967 to apply the same supercomputer techniques to try to find an astronomical order to the lines and drawings in the Nazca desert, but he couldnít find an explanation. In 1968, Erich von Daniken, author of Chariots of the Gods, suggested that the lines were trails left as runways for spaceships, pointing to mysterious cleared rectangles as airstrips and figures of an owl-man or "astronaut," as evidence. Tony Morrison believes that the lines are ritual walkways that people used to go between ceremonial sites. Even now, ceremonial lines like these have been found from the Chimor region in the north all the way south to northern Chile. During Inti Raymi, modern-day Quechua-speaking peoples run in long, straight, intersecting lines up on the mountainside as a sign of respect to their ancestors.

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At the Museo Nacional in Lima, Nazca pottery of a monkey with four fingers on one hand and five on the other, just like the one on the pampa.
The pottery and textile record allows archaeologists to date the Nazca culture into three stages: early (200AD to 500AD), late (500AD to 700AD), and terminal (700AD to 800AD). When I visited the Museo Nacional in Lima, I saw terrific Nazca pottery with pictures of humming birds, whales, a seabird eating a big fish, and a monkey with four fingers on one hand and five on the other, just like the one on the pampa.

Max Uhle, first studying Nazca in 1901, realized that the Nazca were a pre-Incan culture different from the other coastal cultures, like the Moche (See Kevinís Sipan dispatch and Abejaís Huaca del Sol article). Since Uhleís excavations, thousands of ceramics have been found (or stolen by huaqueros (grave-robbers)). These have bright colors, made from minerals, painted directly on pots, cups, and plates, including a type of pot with a handle connecting two necks. Eight Nazca "phases" of pottery have been catalogued. My favorites are the "Monumental" phase (2-4), with simple designs on white or red backgrounds with pictures of plants, animals, and humans, and the "Proliferous" phase 5, with decapitated heads and demons. As for clothing, the Nazca used wool one thousand years before it came into vogue on the northern coast. Llama hair, and in greater quantities, alpaca wool clothing, has been preserved by the dry air, in which little decomposes.

If you are a budding archaeologist and have some interesting ideas and an eye for clues, perhaps YOU can come and help find the solution to this age-old puzzle. In the meantime, the lines and figures of Nazca sprawl beneath the desert sky as grand, silent reminders of one cultureís imagination, creativity, and expression.


Monica - Wanted: A Solution to the Puzzle in the Desert
Shawn - Snake-Cats at the Lanzon de Templo Viaje
Kevin - Hungry? How about some Cuy?
Kevin - The Ventanillas: A View to Die for-twice!
Shawn - Inspiration at High Elevations: Huapi Mountain
Making a Difference - Constant Threat at Big Mountain
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