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We met at dawn on a winter morning in August, with fog streaming through the valley below us and the sun still trapped behind the Andean foothills to the east. As we picked our way across a large trapezoid on the floor of the desert plateau, Isla cautioned me to walk carefully and tended to the sacred landscape like a groundskeeper, tamping disturbed stones back into place as if they were golf divots. After several minutes of an odd tiptoeing hike, we found ourselves standing in the lanes of an ancient spiral—another common form of Nasca geoglyph.

As we walked around the path of the spiral, my feet naturally drew me face-to-face with every point in the compass of the surroundings: the Palpa Valley to the south, the coastal mountains to the west, the local "sacred mountain" (Cerro Pinchango) to the north, and to the east, the foothills of the Andes, with their godlike power to feed the fragile rivers that curl through the Nasca drainage, watering the seeds of civilization sown in this otherwise arid environment. If I had stepped into the vortex of this curving itinerary in ancient times, I would also have been compelled to face my fellow worshippers walking the same path. Such a Nasca prayer walk, I realized, would have reinforced both sacred and social relationships.

"Look!" Isla suddenly exclaimed. The sun had risen above the foothills, and the slanting morning light was projecting our long shadows across the geoglyph. The spiral fairly hovered above the landscape, its boundaries of piled rock etched in sharp relief.

As my footsteps continued around the curves of the spiral, it occurred to me that one of the most important functions of the "mysterious" Nasca lines is no mystery at all. The geoglyphs surely provided a kinetic, ritualistic reminder to the Nasca people that their fate was tied to their environment—its natural beauty, its ephemeral abundance, and its life-threatening austerity. You can read their reverence for nature, in times of plenty and in times of desperate want, in every line and curve they scratched onto the desert floor. When your feet inhabit their sacred space, even for a brief and humbling moment, you can feel it. 

Stephen Hall's latest book, Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience, is due out this month from Knopf. Robert Clark is a frequent contributor.
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