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Interpretations - Mystical Places - The Nazca Lines

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The Nazca Lines

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Runway for alien spaceships? That's just one of the fanciful theories on the purpose of the Nazca lines.


In the hot hazy desert of southwest Peru, couched between the Andes Mountains and the Peruvian coast, lies what many have called one of the most baffling enigmas of archeology. Huge geometric patterns and spirals, animal figures including a monkey, a spider and an 'owl man', and thousands of perfectly straight lines are immaculately etched onto the desert's surface. The last of them were drawn about a thousand years ago. Known as the Nazca lines, the drawings have mystified scientists since they were first discovered in the 1920s.


From ground level, the earth drawings, or geoglyphs as they're called, seem like a confused mass of lines. It's only when viewed from the air, that one sees how the lines and figures convey a sense of purpose, of organization. But for whom? Why? And how did they get such large drawings - one of the lines is 65 kilometres long, and some of the animal drawings are more than two soccer fields long - so precise?


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Phylliss Pitluga is a senior astronomer at the Chicago Adler Planetarium. She's studied the lines for more than ten years - from an astronomical perspective. The lines first captivated her when she saw them from above in an airplane.


"When I got over there and flew over the site, I saw a sense of organization that doesn't show up in small close-up photos," says Pitluga. "I was fascinated and I was compelled to want to know more."


She's not the only one. Ever since the founder of Peruvian archeology, Julio Tello, first recorded the lines in 1926, scientists have spent years puzzling over the riddle of the Nazca lines. Still, not one clear theory exists today that answers these basic questions, making the drawings one of the world's most intriguing unsolved mysteries.

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Thousands of lines, hundreds of patterns


Scattered over about 500 square kilometres of an arid plateau between two river valleys around the city of Nazca, perhaps the most famous of the drawings are the biomorphic figures: a spider, a monkey, a whale, a snake, a lizard, a flower, a man and 18 bird shapes, including the hummingbird and the condor. There are about 50 of these figures ranging in size from 25 metres to 275 metres long. Despite their fame, these are confined to a small corner of the desert - or the pampa, as it is called by the Peruvians.

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The Hummingbird


Most of the pampa is dominated by 1,300 kilometres of perfectly straight lines, some as narrow as 6 inches and others as wide as hundreds of metres, crisscrossing or running parallel to each other. There are also 300 geometric figures, mostly trapezoids, triangles, zig-zags and spirals.

The Nazcans


The Nazca lines are thought to have been made by the Nazca Indians who lived in the region between 300 BC and 800 AD. Their pottery has been found at the Nazca lines. Predecessors of the Incas, the Nazca Indians didn't leave any evidence of a written language, and none of their descendants survive today.

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But we do know that they were farmers, says Persis B. Clarkson, an archeologist and expert in geoglyphs at the University of Winnipeg. Although the region is one of the driest in the world, the land is fertile, and the Nazcans made use of a subterranean irrigation system to water their crops. They made channels and tunnels to access the water system, which would have required a way to regulate the water system, says Clarkson. And that implies that Nazcan society was a hierarchical one.


They also worshipped deities. Some of the pictures on their pottery are of figures with both animal and human characteristics - and some very scary features, says Clarkson. Exaggerated eyes and large fangs on their half-feline, half-human creatures, for example, suggest "that there was a greater power out there than humans."


Their huge burial sites also show that they paid special attention to their dead, placing them in their graves in the fetal position, wrapped with beautiful cloths.

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