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Since they became widely known in the late 1920s, when commercial air travel was introduced between Lima and the southern Peruvian city of Arequipa, the mysterious desert drawings known as the Nasca lines have puzzled archaeologists, anthropologists, and anyone fascinated by ancient cultures in the Americas. For just as long, waves of scientists—and amateurs—have inflicted various interpretations on the lines, as if they were the world's largest set of Rorschach inkblots. At one time or another, they have been explained as Inca roads, irrigation plans, images to be appreciated from primitive hot-air balloons, and, most laughably, landing strips for alien spacecraft.

After World War II a German-born teacher named Maria Reiche made the first formal surveys of the lines and figures—called geoglyphs—outside Nasca and the nearby town of Palpa. For half a century, until her death in 1998, Reiche played a critically important role in conserving the geoglyphs. But her own preferred theory—that the lines represented settings on an astronomical calendar—has also been largely discredited. The ferocity with which she protected the lines from outsiders has been adopted by their caretakers today, so that even scientists have a hard time gaining access to the most famous animal figures on the plain, or pampa, immediately northwest of Nasca.

Since 1997, however, a large Peruvian-German research collaboration has been under way near the town of Palpa, farther to the north. Directed by Isla and Markus Reindel of the German Archaeological Institute, the Nasca-Palpa Project has mounted a systematic, multidisciplinary study of the ancient people of the region, starting with where and how the Nas­ca lived, why they disappeared, and what was the meaning of the strange designs they left behind in the desert sand.

As our plane banked into another turn, Isla, a native of the highlands who works at the Andean Institute of Archaeological Studies, kept his broad, high-cheeked face pressed to the window. "Trapezoid!" he shouted, pointing out a huge geometrical clearing looming into sight. "Platform!" he added, gesturing with his finger. "Platform!"

Platform? He was pointing at a small heap of stones at one end of the trapezoid. If Isla and his colleagues are right, such unprepossessing structures may hold a key to understanding the true purpose of the Nasca lines. The story begins, and ends, with water.

The coastal region of southern Peru and northern Chile is one of the driest places on Earth. In the small, protected basin where the Nasca culture arose, ten rivers descend from the Andes, to the east, most of them dry at least part of the year. These ten fragile ribbons of green, surrounded by a thousand shades of brown, offered a fertile hot spot for the emergence of an early civilization, much as the Nile Delta or the rivers of Mesopotamia did. "It was the perfect place for human settlement, because it had water," says geographer Bernhard Eitel, a member of the Nasca-Palpa Project. "But it was a high-risk environment—a very high-risk environment."

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