The Nasca Geoglyphs - Summary

The Nasca Indians are well known for their construction of geoglyphs on an unparalleled scale in the dessert of the Nasca region in Peru. These geoglyphs still riddle the scientific world. The reasons for the Indians to get involved in such a complex, massive undertaking are still a mystery, as is the meaning and purpose of these figurative drawings and geometric patterns.

The objective of this paper is to make a contribution to the discussion on the purpose and meaning of the geoglyphs. The presented model is based on a detailed map of the geoglyphs, which covers the entire cultural area. The geoglyphs were mapped using “Google Earth Pro”. The outcome of the mapping is studied in a geographical and meteorological context and was combined with information from various cultural indicators, in addition to models and concepts put forward by other scholars.

The Nasca Civilization flourished from circa 100 BC to 650 AD in Peru. The cultural area covers in essence the drainage area of the Rio Grande and tributaries.

The Nasca Indians formed an illiterate society, thus they did not leave a written testimony describing their way of life. Still we have a reasonable picture of their civilization largely derived from imaginary on high quality pottery and textiles.

Nasca subsistence was based essentially on agriculture and livestock-breeding. Their diet was completed by hunting and gathering and the hunt for sea mammals, fishing and collecting other marine products. They had a desperate need for water, being farmers and living in an arid climate. Their religion was animistic; rituals have likely centred on fertility and the provision of water by the forces that rule nature, the spirits. Trophy heads played an important role in soliciting the help of the supernatural world. Cahuachi, a large temple complex build in adobe, was their religious centre. It faces the high mountains, the ultimate source of the life giving water and home to the most powerful spirits. Water was symbolised by the serpent and represented by a zigzag pattern. A very large zigzag geoglyph is found just south of Cahuachi. It is therefore likely that Cahuachi was the centre of a water cult, the worship of the mythical serpent, which symbolises an aspect of their supreme deity Illa-kata. Illa-kata is also the name of one of the highest mountains in the source area of the Rio Grande, possibly considered by the Nasca people as their place of origin. Note that the line connecting the top of Illa-kata with the mouth of the Rio Grande crosses Cahuachi.

Geoglyphs occur throughout the Nasca cultural area. Most researchers interpret the lines in a ceremonial, religious context. They probably play a role in sacred rituals. The geoglyph patterns may therefore hold the key to understanding the purpose of the Nasca effort.

However, the geoglyph patterns are much disturbed (or even destroyed) by erosion and modern activities like construction works, industrial activities, modern art-work, farming and car tracks. Still, it appears that sufficient information has been preserved to make a detailed map on which basis an interpretation can be attempted.

The interpretation of the information obtained from the satellite images only allow us to speculate about the meaning and purpose of the geoglyphs, when interpreted independent from other lines of evidence. However, there is no knowledge without speculation. Thus the satellite images give us a means to formulate questions and concepts for further testing.

In constructing the map of the geoglyphs a typology was used which subdivides the geoglyph types in various groups of geometric and descriptive classes. The geometric class embraces a group of lineal and a group of areal geoglyphs. The descriptive classes are subdivided in biomorphic and representational groups, and embrace the world famous figurative drawings like the spider, humming bird, Oculate Being and many others.

During the mapping of the geoglyphs it was noted that:

1. Nasca straight lines are unaffected by irregularities in topography;

2. They applied in many drawings a single crooked line approach;

3. Stone heaps were located in deliberate positions with respect to geoglyph compositions;

4. Spirals were etched in the desert floor near the base of trapezoids or triangles, and thus occur in specific locations with respect to the geoglyph composition;

5. Triangular and trapezoidal areal geoglyphs appear and are interpreted to represent directional signs guiding the pilgrim towards the sacred;

6. Representational drawings like for instance the Mandela (5 occurrences) only occur in a specific area; they are interpreted here to represent a clan logo.

The geoglyph types were combined in compositions which are characterised by a few specific designs. I believe that these compositions can be interpreted as places for interaction with the spirits of either local significance (like a parish) or of nationwide importance.

However, it should be noted that the geoglyphs were made during a time span of some 1000 years. Thus assumed compositions could embrace components which were made at very different times, and therefore an assumed relationship could be accidental and thus meaningless. However, one of the most enduring aspects of human society is a religious belief system. It is very common that peoples will recognize, understand, maintain, and continue to build upon religious imagery of a thousand years old or more.

(A) Local Places of Worship.

The most common design is a fanlike composition of varying complexity and scale, oriented with its apex (tip) up the drainage system. The tip of the composition is often pointing towards an elevated spot. Triangular and trapezoidal areal geoglyphs, which are building blocks of the composition, have their base at a lower elevation than their tip, thus they also point up the drainage.

The fan-like compositions are in general not linked to other compositions. They either occur alone or side by side. Spirals are located near the base of the compositions. Zigzag patterns are located in the middle section. They are interpreted to represent stand-alone places of veneration where rituals were practised to ask the spirits for instance to provide water or other necessities. The fan-like structures point from the common place in the river valleys (base of the composition) towards the sacred realm, the home of the key spirits. The zigzag patterns represent water or a flowing river. Figurative drawings in part symbolize other needs. The triangular and trapezoidal areal geoglyphs are interpreted to represent signposts towards the sacred.

Thus for example a Nasca procession starting at the common place moved up towards the tip of the composition, where they asked the spirits to remedy their need. For instance they asked the spirits to provide water, which they subsequently emphasised by following the zigzag line downward, which on its turn ended in a spiral, representing rejuvenation and fertility. Note that in some cases the whole processional avenue was etched on the surface as one single crooked line.

(B) Nasca Open Air Religious Centre.

Another important composition is the convergent line centre. They form large star-like structures with an artificial or natural elevation in its centre. In the latter case I refer to them as radiating hilltops.

An early interpretation advocated by Maria Reiche suggested that the Nasca people used the geoglyphs as an observatory for astronomical phenomena, which had meaning in terms of an agricultural calendar. It is obvious, when superposing the various convergent line centres, that many lines starting at the various centres have very similar orientations. It can be demonstrated that some lines are oriented for instance to the sunrise on the winter solstice; an explanation in a celestial context in these cases appears apparent. These centres may represent Paqarinas or Huacas.

The convergent line centres on Pampa Colorado are connected with one and other by very long straight lines. These lines can measure over ten kilometres in length. They terminate or originate sometimes in an aerial geoglyph. Such areal geoglyphs may also occur along their extend. They form a pampa wide network with on the Pampa Colorada the Oculate Being located in one of the knots.

I believe that the convergent line centres connected by the long straight lines on Pampa Colorada form a single composition with the Oculate Being in its centre. The Oculate Being may be interpreted to represent the guardian of the realm of the spirits, who with his raised hand welcomes petitioners / pilgrims!!

The geoglyphs on Pampa Colorada are thus interpreted to form in essence one large open air complex for religious rituals!! The construction of these geoglyphs must have required careful planning. The long straight lines likely form procession routes connecting various sacred locations. Starting at a place of origin (Paqarina) or sacred location (Huaca) they lead a pilgrim toward the realm of the spirits which is guarded by the Oculate Being. From there they entered ultimately the realm of the spirits where their help could be solicited.

At this point we can only speculate what the next steps were in this pilgrimage, if any. The top of the hill of the Oculate Being provides looking westward, a panoramic view of Pampa Colorada; looking eastward upstream the rambla, the horizon is dominated by a high hill. Opposite this hill occurs a directional geoglyph, which points to a trail leading over the water-divide towards the highest mountain (2110 m) in this region, the realm of the main spirits. Human made structures (vague indications) may be present at the top of this mountain, which could indicate that sacred rituals were once practiced here.

In summary, the Nasca geoglyphs are arranged in compositions which are oriented upon the high mountains, the source of the life giving water. The tips of the compositions point up the drainage systems. Most compositions form local places for sacred rituals carried out by a clan. The geoglyphs on the Pampa Colorada form a pampa wide network for religious rituals bridging the gap between the common place of the Nasca nation and the realms of the spirits. The famous Oculate Being welcomes pilgrims, who want to solicit the help of the spirits. The geoglyphs of Pampa Colorada appear of nationwide importance.

The study of the information on the satellite images clearly show that large areas remain untouched by scientists, if at all. Therefore, it is likely that much remains to be discovered.

The discovery of new geoglyphs is being reported on a regular basis. It is obvious from the available data in the public domain that extensive areas have not been explored yet, let alone were visited with more advanced technology with a significant higher chance for success to find new geoglyphs. Thus, the scope for making new discoveries appears significant.

The type of descriptive geoglyphs may vary from one area to the other, for instance the mandalas only occur on the Pampa de Jumana. It appears that certain descriptive geoglyph topics have a limited geographical occurrence, and therefore could be interpreted as distinguishing factors between clans. A problem may be that the geoglyphs were made during a large time span of some 1000 years and therefore may contain little information on peoples who lived in a certain part of the river valley at a specific time; different groups of Nasca Indians could have succeeded one and other. However, considering that the livelihood of the Nasca depended on agriculture, it is likely that the Nasca were not very mobile.

A remarkable conclusion in a study of the origin of Nasca trophy heads (Knudson et al, 2009) is that Nasca trophy heads were obtained from the Nasca population. This could indicate that a clan or family group choose one of their own to participate in a head taking ritual, but it is more likely that the heads were taken from a clan living in a neighbouring valley in the Rio Grande Basin in line with imagery on ceramics. An interpretation that favours the existence of Nasca clans appears realistic. The geographical distinct descriptive geoglyphs may be interpreted to represent totems of the various clans.

The Rio Grande Basin was possibly home to 8 clans, which made their home in one of the various tributaries. These clans held the Nasca culture in common; they produced in general everywhere the same geometric geoglyphs. However, they can be differentiated by their own characteristic descriptive geoglyphs, probably their totem.

The most remarkable aspect of the geoglyphs is that the bulk of the drawings can only be properly appreciated from the air. Many explanations have been put forward to address this feature, including extra-terrestrial inspiration (Erich von Däniken). Recent studies of the visibility of the geoglyphs from the ground, using digital terrain models, indicate that good visibility was an important criterion for the choice of location for new geoglyphs. It is therefore not surprising that most of the geoglyphs are oriented on elevated spots.

However, some airborne angle may still be considered. The areal geoglyphs in specific areas could have been used as runways for paragliding activities. The gods were not astronauts, but may be the Indians themselves were airborne.

Tentative conclusions.

The Nasca nation embraces 8 tribes /clans in the Rio Grande Basin. The Nasca geoglyphs represent:

a. Secular

1. roads between the various tribal areas (long (wide) straight lines)
2 clan logos / totems (descriptive geoglyphs)

b. Religious

1. clan religious centres (fan complexes, convergent line centres)
2. religious centre of nation-wide importance (pampa wide network)
3. symbols for the natural forces (zigzag lines, spirals, descriptive geoglyphs), f.i. Oculate Being represents the guardian of the realm of the main spirits.
4. direction signs (straight lines, areal geoglyphs)

Future Research should be directed to:

1. selected mountains in the vicinity of the Nasca cultural area in order to clarify the religious intent of the Nasca.
2. the periphery of the Nasca cultural area where disturbance by grave-robbers and other activities is minimal in order to obtain an optimal picture of the relationship between the various Nasca cultural indicators.