The Nazca Lines: Patterns Drawn on the World's Largest Canvass

The Nazca lines are patterns etched in the broad alluvial plains of the Peruvian Coast by the Nazca people who inhabited this region between 200 and 700 AD.  Some lines are kilometers long, others as small as 200 meters. The Nazca people are also known for the colorful geometric designs on their terra cotta pottery and beautiful woven fabrics used a burial shrouds ,many of which are preserved in pristine condition as a result of a dry climate that rivals that of Egypt. The Nazca occupy roughly the same territory as the Paracas (800BC-200AD), also known for their intricate fabrics.

The site of the Nazca lines is about 600 kilometers south of Lima along the coast. At this point the alluvial plain between the beginning of the altiplano and the sea is about 50 kilometers wide. The surface of the plain is covered with fine dark pebbles that overlie a white gypsum base. Removing only several centimeters of the surface reveals the underlying white.  Braided dried rivulets etch white patterns over the surface as well.
 
I saw our distinct types of Nazca markings, in addition to paved roads (including the Pan American Highway that transects the site), dirt roads and single wandering tire tracks.

Type 1: Straight and wavy single lines up to several kilometers long.
Type 2: Lines that together comprise geometric figures i.e. triangles and trapezoids.
Type 3: Blocked geometric forms. The center of these is entirely cleared. The edges are raised. These are mostly elongated trapezoids with long narrow rectangles at the apex  up to one or two kilometers in length. Some are partially filled small regular mounds.
Type 4: Clear depictions of animals, a whale, a monkey with an exaggerated spiral tail, a parrot, stylized birds and even on one mountain side a simplified human form.
 

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William Haseltine


The technique also varies. Some patterns are shallow, no more than three centimeters deep. Other geometric forms have been scrapped clear. Still others, such as the monkey have been cut at least 40 centimeters into the earth. The remarkable state of preservation of these lines, the youngest of which are 1,300 years old, is a testament to the extremely stable arid conditions of this region.
 

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William Haseltine


The lines appear to have been made at different times. Some are overlapping. Some overlay several existing figures much as the new roads transect many figures.
 
The reason the Nazca made the lines is undocumented. I recall a recent study in Science Magazine that argued that the patterns were paths that were walked by religious devotees-like a religious maze or pilgrimage. Others claim, apparently with justification, that some forms serve as astronomical markers and others indicate sources of water. Perhaps the lines fulfilled many functions. 

This field of dreams lies many kilometers from inhabited areas. The Nazca lived in a valley  intermittently watered by three rivers near the edge of the mountains. The lines are drawn on the alluvial plain that descends from this valley towards the sea. 
 
To view the lines I drove three and one half hours on the Pan American Highway from Lima to Pisco. From Pisco a plane flew 45 minutes to Nazca, circled each animal twice and returned to base.

There is a magnificent sea side resort in Paracas, just minutes from the airport-a good place to stop before or after the flight.

The flight from Pisco to Nazca takes you over a spectacular landscape sandwiched between sea and mountain. Dunes tower 100-200 feet over the hard desert floor. Towns such as Ica lie pressed against the mountain side surrounded on three sides by a sea of towering sand.
The Nazca lines are patterns drawn many hundreds of years ago on the world's largest canvass. They are a wonder of the ancient world!

William Haseltine is a former professor at Harvard Medical School, where he researched cancer and HIV/AIDS. He is the founder of Human Genome Sciences, where he served as chairman and CEO, and the president of the William A Haseltine Foundation for Medical Sciences and the Arts. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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