Published: March 2010
Spirits in the Sand
The ancient Nasca lines of Peru shed their secrets.
By Stephen S. Hall

From the air, the lines etched in the floor of the desert were hard to see, like drawings left in the sun too long. As our pilot cut tight turns over a desert plateau in southern Peru, north of the town of Nasca, I could just make out a succession of beautifully crafted figures.

"Orca!" shouted Johny Isla, a Peruvian archaeologist, over the roar of the engine. He pointed down at the form of a killer whale. "¡Mono!" he said moments later, when the famous Nasca monkey came into view. “¡Colibrí!” The hummingbird.

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."

According to Eitel and his University of Heidelberg colleague Bertil Mächtle, the micro­climate in the Nasca region has oscillated dramatically over the past 5,000 years. When a high-pressure system over central South America called the Bolivian High moves to the north, more rain falls on the western slopes of the Andes. When the high shifts southward, precipitation decreases, and the rivers in the Nasca valleys run dry.

Despite the risky conditions, the Nasca flourished for eight centuries. Around 200 B.C., the Nasca people emerged out of a previous culture known as the Paracas, settling along the river valleys and cultivating crops such as cotton, beans, tubers, lucuma (a fruit), and a short-eared form of corn. Renowned for their distinctive pottery, they invented a new technique of mixing about a dozen different mineral pigments in a thin wash of clay so that colors could be baked into the pottery. A famous ceramic tableau known as the Tello plaque—showing several Nasca strolling while blowing their panpipes, surrounded by dancing dogs—has been viewed as an iconic snapshot of a peaceful people whose rituals embraced music, dance, and sacred walks.

The theocratic capital of early Nasca times was a sand-swept mecca called Cahuachi. The site, first excavated in the 1950s by Columbia University archaeologist William Duncan Strong, is a vast, 370-acre complex featuring an imposing adobe pyramid, several large temples, broad plazas and platforms, and an intricate network of connecting staircases and corridors. In their 2003 book on Nasca irrigation systems, archaeologist Katharina Schreiber of the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Josué Lancho Rojas, a local schoolmaster and historian, point out that the Nasca River, which goes underground about nine miles to the east, resurfaces like a spring on the doorstep of Cahuachi. "The emergence of water at this point," they write, "was almost certainly regarded as sacred in prehistoric times."

"Cahuachi was a ceremonial center," says Giuseppe Orefici, an Italian archaeologist who has led the excavation for many years. "People came here from the mountains and from the coast, bringing offerings." Among the artifacts unearthed were dozens of severed heads, typically with a braided rope strung through a hole drilled in the forehead, perhaps to allow the skull to be worn around the waist.

Elsewhere in the Nasca realm, people moved east or west along the river valleys as rainfall patterns shifted. The Peru-German archaeological initiative has explored the region from the Pacific coast to altitudes of nearly 15,000 feet in the Andean highlands. Almost everywhere they have looked they have found evidence of Nasca villages—"like pearls in the valley margins," says Reindel. "And near every settlement we find geoglyphs."

The parched desert and hillsides made an inviting canvas: By simply removing a layer of dark stones cluttering the ground, exposing the lighter sand beneath, the Nasca created markings that have endured for centuries in the dry climate. Archaeologists believe both the construction and maintenance of the lines were communal activities—"like building a cathedral," says Reindel.

In the hyperarid southern valleys, early Nasca engineers may have also devised a more practical way of coping with the scarcity of water. An ingenious system of horizontal wells, tapping into the sloping water table as it descends from the Andean foothills, allowed settlements to bring subterranean water to the surface. Known as puquios, these irrigation systems still water the southern valleys.

Perhaps because of the adversity they faced, the Nasca people seem to have been remarkably "green." The creation of the puquios displayed a sophisticated sense of water conservation, since the underground aqueducts minimized evaporation. The farmers planted seeds by making a single hole in the ground rather than plowing, thus preserving the substructure of the soil. During a visit to a Nasca site called La Muña, Isla pointed out layers of vegetative matter in the walls of buildings and terraces that marked the rocky hillside settlement. The Nasca, he said, recycled their garbage as building material. "It's a society that managed its resources very well," he said. "This is what Nasca is all about."

To most people today, Nasca is all about the lines. But although the Nasca were certainly the most prolific makers of geoglyphs, they were not the first. On a hillside abutting a plateau south of Palpa sprawl three stylized human figures, with buggy eyes and bizarre rays of hair, that date to at least 2,400 years ago—earlier than almost any textbook date for the start of the Nas­ca civilization. Reindel's group has attributed no fewer than 75 groups of geoglyphs in the Palpa area to the earlier Paracas culture. These Paracas geoglyphs, which often depict stylized humanlike figures, in turn share distinct visual motifs with even earlier images carved in stone, known as petroglyphs. During a recent foot survey of a suspected Paracas site high in the Palpa River Valley, Isla came across a petroglyph of a monkey—a surprising, earlier incarnation of the famous Nasca geoglyph he had pointed out to me on the pampa below our plane.

These new findings make an important point about the Nasca lines: They were not made at one time, in one place, for one purpose. Many have been superimposed on older ones, with erasures and overwritings complicating their interpretation; archaeologist Helaine Silverman once likened them to the scribbling on a blackboard at the end of a busy day at school. The popular notion that they can be seen only from the air is a modern myth. The early Paracas-era geoglyphs were placed on hillsides where they could be seen from the pampa. By early Nasca times the images—less anthropomorphic, more naturalistic—had migrated from the nearby slopes to the floor of the pampa. Almost all of these iconic animal figures, such as the spider and the hummingbird, were single-line drawings; a person could step into them at one point and exit at another without ever crossing a line, suggesting to archaeologists that at some point in early Nasca times the lines evolved from mere images to pathways for ceremonial processions. Later, possibly in response to explosive population growth documented by the German-Peruvian team, more people may have participated in these rituals, and the geoglyphs took on open, geometrical patterns, with some trapezoids stretching more than 2,000 feet. "Our idea," Reindel says, "is that they weren't meant as images to be seen anymore, but stages to be walked upon, to be used for religious ceremonies."

Those ancient acts of worship have left their traces in the ground itself. Between 2003 and 2007 Tomasz Gorka and Jörg Fassbinder, geophysicists at the Bavarian State Department of Monuments and Sites, took measurements of the Earth's magnetic field on a trapezoid near Yunama, a village outside Palpa, and on other lines nearby. Subtle perturbations in the magnetic signal indicated that the soil had been compacted by human activity, especially around the platforms. Karsten Lambers, another member of the Nasca-Palpa Project, had meanwhile collected positional data and precise measurements of sight lines across hundreds of geoglyphs. The data showed that the trapezoids and other geometric shapes were constructed where they would be visible from a number of vantage points. The team concluded that they were places where "social groups acted and interacted, and spectators in the valleys and on other geoglyph sites were able to watch and observe."

Cerro Blanco, among the tallest sand dunes in the world, rises pale and stark out of the surrounding bowl of sere Andean foothills, dominating the physical and spiritual landscape of the southern Nasca valleys. For centuries the Andean people have worshipped deities embodied in mountains such as Cerro Blanco. According to Johan Rein­hard, a National Geographic explorer-in-residence, the mountains have traditionally been associated—mythologically, if not geologically—with water sources. The Nas­ca potsherds littering the path to the summit of Cerro Blanco would suggest the connection runs deep into the past.

In 1986 Reinhard reported finding ruins of a ceremonial stone circle at the summit of Illakata, at over 14,000 feet one of the tallest mountains feeding runoff to the Nasca drainage system. Along with other traces of ritual activity at the top of Nasca watersheds, the discovery led him to propose that one of the main purposes of the Nasca lines was related to the worship of mountain deities, including Cerro Blanco, because of their connection to water.

Recent research has bolstered the hypothesis. In the highlands farther north, where wild vicuñas wander near the headwaters of the Palpa River, I joined Reindel and his team on a scramble to the top of a sacred mountain known locally as Apu Llamoca. (In the indigenous language, apu is the word for "deity.") At the summit of this dark volcanic dike, Reindel showed me a worship circle with ceramic potsherds the team had found in 2008 and nearby, a semicircular structure almost exactly like the one Reinhard had reported finding on Illakata.

For the Nasca-Palpa Project researchers, however, the real epiphany connecting Nasca sacred rituals to water worship occurred in 2000, on the trapezoid that dominates the desolate plateau near the village of Yunama. The archaeologists had frequently noticed large, man-made mounds of stones at the end of such trapezoids, which they suspected were ceremonial altars. As Reindel excavated his way through one mound, uncovering smashed potsherds, crayfish shells, vegetable remains, and other relics that clearly represented ritual offerings, he came upon fragments of a large seashell of the genus Spondylus, distinctive for its creamy, coral-like hues and spiky outer surface. It appears in the coastal waters off northern Peru only during El Niño events and is thus associated with the arrival of rainfall and agricultural fertility.

"The Spondylus shell is one of the few items of Andean archaeology that has been well studied," Reindel says. "It's a very important religious symbol for water and fertility. Like incense in the Old World, it was brought from far away and is found in specific contexts, such as funerary objects and on these platforms. It was connected in certain activities to praying for water. And it's clear," he adds, "in this area, water was the key issue."

Ultimately, all those offerings and prayers went unanswered.

In 2004, at a site called La Tiza in the southern Nasca region, overlooking the dry Aja River, archaeologist Christina Conlee made a grim discovery while excavating a Nasca tomb. The first part of the skeleton to emerge from the dirt was not the skull, but the neck bones. "We could see the vertebrae sitting on top," Conlee told me. "The person was seated, with arms crossed and legs crossed, and no head."

Cut marks on the protruding neck bones probably indicate the head had been severed by a sharp obsidian knife. Underscoring the point, a ceramic pot known as a head jar rested against the elbow of the skeleton; it depicted a typically decapitated "trophy head," out of which grew an eerie, Halloween-like tree trunk with eyes. According to Donald Proulx, an expert on Nasca pottery and professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the style of the jar suggests a tentative date of A.D. 325 to 450.

Everything about the burial—the posture of the skeleton, the head jar, and the posture of the body—indicates a deliberate, respectful interment. "You're not going to do that with your enemy," said Conlee, a researcher at Texas State University. Isotope analysis of the young man's bones make clear that he had lived in the immediate vicinity and was thus a local person rather than a foreign enemy captured in war. Conlee suspects the skeleton represents a ritual sacrifice. "Although we find trophy heads spread throughout the Nasca period," she said, "there are some indications that they became more common in the middle and late period, and also at times of great environmental stress, perhaps drought. If this was a sacrifice, it was made to appease the gods, perhaps because of a drought or crop failure."

There is little question that water—or more precisely, its absence—had assumed paramount importance by the endgame of the Nasca culture, roughly between A.D. 500 and 600. In the Palpa area, geophysicists have traced the creep of the eastern margin of the desert about 12 miles up the valleys between 200 B.C. and A.D. 600, reaching an altitude of some 6,500 feet. Similarly, the population centers in the river oases around Palpa moved farther up the valleys, as if they were trying to outrun the arid conditions. "At the end of the sixth century A.D.," Eitel and Mächtle conclude in a recent paper, "the aridity culminated and the Nasca society collapsed." By A.D. 650, the more militaristic Wari (Huari) Empire, which expanded from its base in the central highlands, had supplanted the Nas­ca in the southern desert region.

"It wasn't just climate conditions that caused the collapse of the early Nasca culture at Cahuachi, and we can say the same thing for the end of Nasca culture in general," Johny Isla told me. "A state of crisis was provoked because water was more prevalent in some valleys than in others, and the leaders of different valleys may have been in conflict."

The legacy of the Nasca lives on in the lines, of course, and although most people come to admire them from the air, what I'd seen and heard convinced me that you can't truly understand the geoglyphs unless you experience them at ground level. In one conversation, Isla had described to me the sensation of walking upon those sacred paths. "You can feel it," he said. Curious about that feeling, I asked him if we could walk several lines on the Cresta de Sacramento, a small ridge north of the town of Palpa.

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.