The Nazca Lines are legendary. Stretching across nearly 200 square miles of high arid plateau, these drawings of hundreds of figures range from giant spiders to vast geometric shapes to enormous monkeys as large as 890 feet, or roughly the size two and a half football fields. Hummingbirds, fish, sharks or orcas, llamas, and lizards — and, according to some, astronauts, aliens, and landing zones — are all depicted in these enormous line drawings.
One of the most tantalizingly mysterious archeological sites, these geoglyphs have spawned more wild theories then they have answered questions about the ancient Peruvian peoples that made them. One significant reason there is so much interest in the drawings: they can only be fully seen from a few hundred feet in the air, meaning that the people who created them never would have had a way to see them in full... unless, of course, you believe they did.
Due to the mystery surrounding their exact purpose and the fact that they can only be fully seen from the sky, the lines are of particular attraction to new-agers, ancient astronaut theorists, and alien enthusiasts — much to the frustration of the anthropologists, archaeologists, and astronomers who have studied the lines and hope to provide credible answers to their purpose and creation.
The glyphs were made between 200 BC and 600 AD, the time of the Nazca people — a head-hunting, ceremonial drug–taking, technologically sophisticated peoples, who are believed to have created the lines. They were created by scraping a 10 to 30cm layer of iron oxide off of the dry desert floor. Due to the incredible dryness and consistent weather of the area, this was all it took to create images that have lasted for well over 1500 years.
The most likely construction method involves putting stakes in the ground, tying a rope between them, and scraping the dirt off along the rope. This would explain the geometric shape of many of the lines, as well as how the Nazca would have kept the measurements for the drawings in ratio to each other, by simply multiplying the measurements of a drawing into rope lengths. Wooden stakes found in the ground at the end of some lines support this theory of creation.
But the real mystery comes not in the how, but the why. The explanation most in keeping with what is known about the Nazca culture is that the lines were made to be walked upon as a sort of ceremonial procession that led to a sacred area where the Nazca prayed to various gods involving agriculture and water. The shapes, then, were never meant to be seen at all, and it was only with the advent of modern airplanes that they were.
Another viable suggestion is that the fuigures might have been meant to be seen by the gods; a sort of first SETI program, they said, "We are here! You, in the sky, are you out there?" Others believe that the lines were a giant astronomical calendar pointing to the locations where celestial bodies would align themselves. However, archaeoastronomists who examined the site in 2000 dismissed this claim as insufficiently supported.
The wildest and least sensible theory — though certainty one of the most seductive and popular — involves ancient aliens or astronauts who communicated with the ancient Peruvians and used the lines as navigational devices or even landing fields for some type of ancient astronaut.
An alternative explanation is that the Nazca did indeed have a way to see the drawings from the air: hot air balloons. Recently Jim Woodmann, a proponent of the Nazca hot-air balloon theory, managed to build one using only materials and techniques that the Nazca would have had available. Hot air balloonist argue that the Nazca were a technologically advanced society and point to their having built an impressive system of underground aqueducts, known as puquios, that still function today. However, there is no evidence, besides it being possilbe, that the Nazca ever built or had hot air balloons.
Despite the figures having been examined by numerous anthropologists, ethnologists, and archaeologists, not to mention new-agers, ancient astronaut theorists, and alien enthusiasts, we may never truly know what the Nazca lines were meant for, or how the Nazca people intended them to be seen. What we do know, though, is that they are incredibly fascinating.
Know Before You Go
Take bus from either Lima (2 hours) or Arequipa (3 hours) to Nazca. Flights can be arranged by local tour agencies, or take any collectivo or bus heading north to get to the Mirador viewing tower 20 km north of town. Best flights over the lines are those before noon -- the wind starts to pick up then and your flight can be bumpy!