Nazca Lines

A giant monkey biomorph on the Nasca desert plain.
A giant monkey biomorph on the Nazca desert plain.

The Nazca Lines are a series of geoglyphs located in the Nazca Desert, a high arid plateau that stretches more than 80 km (50 miles) between the towns of Nazca and Palpa on the Pampas de Jumana in Peru. Although some of the local geoglyphs resemble Paracas Motifs, these are nevertheless largely believed to have been created by the Nazca culture between 200 BCE and 700 CE. There are hundreds of individual figures, ranging in complexity from simple lines to stylized hummingbirds, spiders, monkeys, fish, sharks or orcas, llamas, and lizards.

Nazca Hummingbird

The lines are made from shallow designs in the ground where the reddish iron oxide-coated pebbles that cover the surrounding landscape have been removed, revealing the whitish earth underneath. Hundreds are simple lines or geometric shapes, and more than seventy are natural or human figures. The largest are over 200 m across. Scholars differ in interpreting what the lines were for but generally ascribe religious significance to them. The geometric ones could indicate the flow of water or be connected to rituals to summon water. The spiders, birds, and plants could be fertility symbols. Other possible explanations include: irrigation schemes, giant astronomical calendars, or –a bit more fantastic– as landing strips for spaceships.


The dry, windless, stable climate of the plateau has preserved the lines to this day, for the most part. Extremely rare changes in weather may temporarily alter the general designs.

Researcher Joe Nickell of the University of Kentucky has reproduced the figures using the technology available to the Nazca people of the time and without aerial assistance. With careful planning and simple technologies, a small team of individuals could recreate even the largest figures within days. In 1985, the archaeologist Johan Reinhard published archaeological, ethnographic, and historical data demonstrating that worship of mountains and other water sources played a dominant role in Nazca religion and economy from ancient to recent times. He presented the theory that the lines and figures can be explained as part of religious practices involving the worship of deities associated with the availability of water and thus the fertility of crops. The lines were interpreted as being primarily used as sacred paths leading to places where these deities could be worshiped, and the figures as symbolically representing animals and objects meant to invoke their aid. However, the precise meanings of many of the individual geoglyphs remain unsolved as of 2009.


Marimariaa Reiche, a Geman mathematician who dedicated half a century to protecting and studying massive ancient drawings in the Peruvian desert, died Monday June 8, 1998 at the age of 95 from stomach cancer, doctors said. Reiche became a legend in Peru for her almost single-handed battle to preserve the Nazca lines, a set of mysterious animal figures scratched into the desert floor about 250 miles (400 km) south of Lima.

For years before the lines became a big tourist attraction, Reiche guarded them so zealously that even after she was confined to a wheelchair she was known to chase trespassers off the sand dunes near the lines. “This is a really painful and sad loss for Peruvian archeology,” former President Alberto Fujimori told reporters during a trip to the United States.

Maria Reiche, who became a Peruvian citizen in 1994, died in an Air Force hospital in Lima surrounded by family members. German and Peruvian flags flew at half-staff in Nazca and authorities declared a day of mourning in the southern town, where the white figures, measuring up to 1.2 miles (1.9 km) in length and etched in shallow ditches, can be fully appreciated only from the air. Reiche, who invested all of her money in a foundation to preserve the lines, earned international respect for her theories that the Nazca peoples used the drawings’ alignment with the sun as a calendar. But her work was also costly to her health