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Spiritual walk.

As this modern
reenactment at a
spiral geoglyph
suggests, the Nasca
culture used the
desert lines in
religious ceremonies.
ARCHAEOLOGY

Digging Into a Desert Mystery


A systematic campaign of aerial photography and archaeological digs
has shed light on the enigmatic Nasca lines, massive designs created
centuries ago on the desert floors of Peru

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For almost a century, scientists have strug- desert floor. The team members also revealed The lines’ fame brings with it unusual
gled to explain one of the best known and unprecedented insights into the culture that cre- pressures. Call it the “Erich von Däniken
least understood ceremonial sites in the ated the famous Nasca lines—and the reason effect,” for the Swiss author of the 1968 book
world. From 500 B.C.E. until approximately for its eventual decline. “It’s an absolutely first- Chariots of the Gods? who made the lines a
650 C.E., the Nasca and Palpa valleys, rate project. They’re taking a smart approach to centerpiece of his theory that aliens influ-
400 kilometers south of Lima, Peru, were the lines,” says University of California, Santa enced ancient cultures. Von Däniken’s book
home to a sophisticated culture that created Barbara, anthropologist Katharina Schreiber. made the Peruvian coast a focus of New Age
massive designs by rearranging stones on the “It’s the first time a section of the Nasca pampa theorists everywhere. “No archaeologist
floor of the Atacama Desert. Ranging from has been subjected to that intensity of study.” wanted to follow von Däniken. They’d just
spectacular animal and humanoid figures to get their f ingers burned,” says Lambers.
trapezoids 2 kilometers across, the hundreds Beyond the Chariots of the Gods “When you work on the lines, everybody’s
of so-called geoglyphs are easily viewed Although the Atacama region is extremely watching you, everybody has their opinions.”
from the air. Some even suggested early on dry, with less than 0.5 millimeter of rainfall Peruvian officials and academics have
that the locals must have invented hot-air annually, between 1800 B.C.E. and 600 C.E., responded by cracking down on research in
ballooning in order to create the intricate a progression of cultures culminating in the the area. “Anyone looking in or near the
designs. And theories about their purpose Nasca harnessed what little water there was to area of the Nasca lines is under extra
have ranged from the somewhat scientific create agrarian societies. And beginning about scrutiny. They’re very self-conscious about
(astronomical charts, water maps) to the 500 B.C.E., the region’s people turned their it,” says University of Massachusetts,
mystical (runways for alien spaceships). artistic attention to the stony ground, which Amherst, archaeologist Donald Proulx.
Now, a decade-long effort by an interna- has a carpet of dark volcanic rocks atop a layer Archaeologists applying for permits to
tional team of researchers is providing some of lighter sand. Moving the top layer of rocks work in the country must go through a
answers. For archaeologists, the glyphs have aside created high-contrast designs. It would lengthy and expensive review of their cre-
been forbidding. So large they’re nearly geo- have been a simple, if labor-intensive, project. dentials and publications.
graphic features, the designs don’t lend them- And the large designs wouldn’t have Beginning in 1997, with funding from the
selves to traditional archaeological methods. required balloons or extraterrestrial assistance. Swiss-Liechtenstein Foundation for Archaeo-
“Archaeologists are used to going somewhere, Scientists over the years have come to the con- logical Research Abroad, a team of archaeolo-
digging, and solving a specific historical prob- clusion that a combination of tall posts, upright gists led by Reindel (then at the University of
lem,” says Markus Reindel of the German stones driven into the ground at regular inter- Bonn) and Johny Isla of the Andean Institute
Archaeological Institute (DAI), the project’s vals, string, and stakes were probably used to of Archaeological Research in Lima, Peru,
co-director. “But the geoglyphs are huge plot rough lines across the desert. The DAI overcame the red tape to begin a multipronged
objects. They’re fascinating, but too much.” team subscribes to this theory. “Making a geo- attempt to unravel the Nasca’s secrets. “It was
To get a grip on them, the team employed a glyph is easier than it seems,” says DAI archae- perfect for Germans; we really like to docu-
battery of high-tech equipment including laser ologist Karsten Lambers. ment things before we analyze. Data collec-
scanners, carbon-dating technology, and even The Nasca lines first attracted scrutiny tion plays a big role for us,” says Reindel.
a 2-meter-long robotic helicopter. from archaeologists in the late 1920s. About a Working in the Palpa Valley, which is not
At a meeting last month in Bonn, Germany, decade later, American Paul Kosok began cat- as well-documented as the Nasca Valley just
Reindel, DAI colleagues, and researchers aloging the lines while studying ancient irri- to the south, the researchers set out to create a
from Peru, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, gation systems. After his death, his German detailed survey of everything from settlement
and elsewhere presented the results of their assistant, Maria Reiche, emerged as a charis- sites to geoglyphs. In addition to traditional
investigations. The geoglyphs, they reported, matic advocate of the theory that the lines ground surveys and test excavations, they
CREDIT: DAI

unquestionably served a ceremonial function; were ancient observatories that helped track used a small plane to take high-resolution
they were not simply massive pictures on the the sun and stars. black-and-white photographs of the designs

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NEWSFOCUS

that cover the valley floor—photos good A royal surprise In the end, the region’s persistent
enough to make out individual stones pushed The scientific team also devoted signifi- droughts proved to be too much. Carbon
aside to make the geoglyphs. cant attention to the people who created dating shows that older settlements were
The project’s potential as a test bed for the geoglyphs. Researchers had long regularly abandoned for new ones in the
technology attracted the attention of the assumed that Nasca culture lacked a strict highlands. By 650 C.E., the culture had
German Federal Ministry of Education and hierarchy, because most of the graves essentially dried up.
Research, which began funding the effort found were fairly modest. Beginning in The German researchers plan to begin
in 2002. Soon archaeologists, engineers, 1998, however, Reindel and Isla uncovered publishing their data next year, and they
computer-imaging experts, and physicists a royal necropolis while excavating a site hope to conduct further studies on sites in
from Germany, Peru, Austria, and Switzerland called La Muña. Although long since the highlands to see what interactions the
were visiting the Palpa Valley to test new looted, the elaborate grave chambers were Nasca might have had with cultures on the
methods on the desert plain. Experiments as much as 6 meters deep and once filled other side of the Andes. Other archaeolo-
included attempts to date the stones based on with pottery and other grave goods. The gists are already praising the project as a
their underside’s last exposure to light and necropolis was strong evidence that the resource. The extensive documentation
creating detailed aerial maps of specific sites Nasca had a much more organized class also “preserves the geoglyphs for future
using the robotic helicopter. All the equipment system than previously thought. generations of scholars,” says Kevin
was a challenge to get through Peruvian cus-

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toms, but the helicopter almost didn’t make it
at all—Lambers had to get permission from
the country’s suspicious aviation authority to
bring the drone into Peru.
Working with Armin Gruen and his group
of photogrammetrists from the Swiss Federal
Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich,
Reindel and Lambers turned the black-and-
white photos into a three-dimensional digital
model of the valley’s topography. Lambers
and ETH photogrammetrist Martin Sauerbier
then used geographic information systems
(GIS) to add layers of other information on
elevation and topography to the digital model
of the geoglyphs. “With the GIS model, we
can calculate visibility index for every point in
the terrain,” Lambers says.
Far from the glyphs being invisible or
incomprehensible to people on the ground, the
model suggests that activity on the lines— Lined up. In addition to massive geometric
people walking or conducting ceremonies, for designs (above), Nasca geoglyphs often
depicted animals such as birds and monkeys.
instance—would have been visible far and
wide. Spectators standing on neighboring
glyphs or at nearby sites would have been able The comprehensive look at the Palpa Vaughn of Purdue University in West
to observe or perhaps participate in valley- Valley sites—more than 650 settlements Lafayette, Indiana.
wide ceremonies. were documented—revealed clues to Preservation is badly needed. As the
Combining the digital efforts with tradi- another mystery: What happened to the region’s population grows, the centuries-old
tional archaeological methods revealed even complex culture that created the lines? glyphs are under threat. In 1994, the United
more. Excavations uncovered platforms and Research by Bernard Eitel, a geographer at Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural
small buildings situated at the ends of large the University of Heidelberg in Germany, Organization chose the lines as a World Her-
linear geoglyphs. Holes up to 60 centimeters suggests it may have been doomed from the itage site deserving protection. Modern
deep situated near the platforms suggest masts start. About 500 B.C.E., the region’s climate copies of the ancient glyphs also contaminate
or poles several meters tall that served as ori- began to grow steadily drier. Whereas pre- the region more and more: Stones that were so
entation points in the desert; other, shallower Nasca peoples lived in the valley basins, easy for the ancients to rearrange are no less
holes might have supported canopylike roofs. grazing their animals on grass and taking tempting for the area’s current residents. “Peo-
Broken pottery and ample evidence of offer- water from rivers that flowed down from the ple go up to the hills and draw their names, or
ings and sacrifices—including guinea pigs, highlands, the dawn of the Nasca period the name of their girlfriend,” Lambers says.
corn, crayf ish, and Spondylus princeps around 200 C.E. marked a shift inland. As Local businesses and even political parties
seashells from thousands of kilometers rivers dried up, the grasslands disappeared, have begun using the slopes as free billboards.
away—indicate that the sites had a religious and the desert crept east, people moved Not quite as mysterious as the Nasca lines, but
function. “It’s very clear; the geoglyphs were toward the mountains, following scarce perhaps less likely to be mistaken for alien
ritual terrain for water and fertility cere- freshwater supplies. “They moved [farther runways in the future.
CREDIT: DAI

monies,” says Reindel. “They were locations, inland] little by little, because year by year –ANDREW CURRY
not pictures.” water was difficult to find,” Isla says. Andrew Curry is a freelance writer in Berlin.

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