The Nasca Lines Solution

Demystifying South America's gigantic archaeological puzzle

By Jack McClintock
Dec 1, 2000 6:00 AMJul 18, 2023 7:35 PM


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David Johnson is a man in a hurry. Carrying a battered leather shoulder bag and sweating profusely in the searing desert heat, he chatters nonstop as he scrambles up a stony, barren hill in the Nasca region of southern Peru. Johnson, a retired high school social studies teacher from Poughkeepsie, New York, thinks he has discovered the secret behind one of the world's most enduring archaeological mysteries, and he can't wait to show off how he got the idea. He tops the hill and stops, sets his feet, purses his lips, and hitches up his pants with his elbows to signal he is ready to make his point. The sun is low, the shadows sharp. Johnson steps aside theatrically. "That's what I saw," he announces, and points.

Below, a parched pampa, or desert, stretches southward for miles toward a distant peak in the Andes Mountains. On the valley floor, a gigantic geometric figure— a trapezoid hundreds of feet long and some 30 yards wide— has been precisely drawn in lines of piled stones, the open center looking as if it has been swept clean. Extending from the trapezoid, two perfectly straight lines of stones shoot southward toward dark clefts in the faraway peak. Johnson claims the clefts are geologic faults that collect precious runoff water from the mountains and feed natural underground aquifers that course through the desert valley. "Right here, I sat down and said, 'My God, I know what the lines of Nasca mean!' " he says. "They're tracing underground water sources!"

Johnson's companion, Steve Mabee, removes his bush hat to wipe away sweat as he gazes in wonder at the enormous trapezoid, one of more than 1,000 enigmatic ground drawings that cover 400 square miles of the bone-dry and sparsely populated Nasca region near Peru's southern coast. Created between 200 B.C. and A.D. 1000 by desert dwellers who left no written record of their culture, the Nasca lines are a mystifying mosaic of straight lines, sprawling geometric forms, and cartoonlike animal figures. Ever since Peruvian archaeologist Toribio Mej’a Xesspe happened upon the lines as he hiked the desert hills in 1927, scientists and curiosity seekers have puzzled over the ground drawings and offered explanations that range from the fanciful (a huge astronomical calendar) to the ludicrous (landing strips for alien spaceships). Mabee, a hydrogeologist from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, has followed Johnson into the desert because he considers his underground water sources theory plausible enough to merit testing. "We make maps of our water lines. Maybe the Nasca people did, too, and just put them on the ground," Mabee says. "Dave has a good idea— a simple explanation that makes sense because water is the number one priority in this area."

The Nasca region is one of the driest places on Earth. Sandwiched between the high Andes and the Pacific Ocean, the area receives at most one inch of rain a year, less than the Gobi and Arabian deserts and Death Valley. The Andes block rain-bearing winds from the Amazon Basin, and the Nasca and Ingenio rivers that cut across the narrow strip of coastal land carry precious little water from the mountains onto the pampa. The arid wasteland is mostly devoid of even sparse desert vegetation and looks as lifeless as the surface of the moon.

A growing number of scholars are now convinced water is the key to solving the riddle of the Nasca lines. On the other hand, some Nasca experts express skepticism that a preliterate people would have had the technical know-how to find and map underground water sources. "Johnson is trying to turn the ancient Nascas into ancient geologists, like some people want to turn the ancient Britons who built Stonehenge into ancient astronomers," says Anthony Aveni, a professor of astronomy and anthropology at Colgate University in New York and author of the new book Between the Lines: The Mystery of the Giant Ground Drawings of Nasca, Peru. Aveni proposes an alternative theory. Basing his argument on an extensive field survey and a computerized analysis of the geometry of the Nasca lines, he asserts that the straight lines converge in spoke patterns and trapezoids where surface water enters the river valleys adjacent to the pampa or at strategic points on elevated land between the ancient streambeds.

Whether the Nasca lines pointed to underground or surface water— or both— scientists who have sifted through fragmentary archaeological evidence suggest the straight lines and geometric forms marked an intricate network of pathways for pilgrims to walk on in their quest to communicate with mountain deities associated with weather and water. After decades of wild speculation, an evocative picture is finally beginning to emerge of a vanished culture that left behind one of the greatest archaeological wonders of the world.

Driving across the Pampa San José, 250 miles south of Lima on the Pan American Highway, a modern visitor to the Nasca region sees little but dreary low hills and wind-carved dunes littered with pebbles and stones. But "fly the lines" in a little twin-engine plane steeply banked for photographs, or climb a hill in late afternoon when the shadows are starkest, and some of the ancient ground drawings pop into view. Nasca lines come in two types: biomorphs and geoglyphs. The charming biomorphs, some 70 plant and animal figures— including a 1,000-foot pelican, a 150-foot spider, and a 360-foot monkey with an extraordinary spiral tail— appear almost whimsical. The 900 or so geoglyphs, those rigorous straight lines and geometric forms— triangles, zigzags, spirals, circles, trapezoids— have a pragmatic feeling about them. Many are enormous: The largest trapezoid covers 160,000 square yards; the longest line shoots nine miles straight across the desert.

Nasca people made the ground drawings on the desert centuries ago by clearing away darkened pampa stones to expose the pale sand beneath, piling the stones around the margin to create an outline a few inches high. A relatively small group of people could easily have sketched the long, straight lines by eye and moved the stones, smaller than footballs, by hand.

The ground drawings aren't the only large-scale archaeological marvels the Nasca people left behind. Ancient aqueducts ring the arid pampa. These aqueducts, called puquios, are a vast system of channels, in some places 30 feet deep and a half-mile long, carefully lined with cobblestones. Katharina Schreiber, an archaeologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, descended into the puquios to explore their construction and concluded that these man-made waterways and the most prominent straight lines on the pampa were constructed around the same time— the sixth century A.D., which, coincidentally, was also the time of a big drought.

The puquios captured David Johnson's imagination when he began visiting the Nasca region five years ago and set out to help the dirt-poor modern inhabitants of scattered villages on the edge of the pampa find new sources of water. A trickle of water still flows through the ancient aqueducts. Villagers told Johnson the Nasca and Ingenio rivers were the primary source of water in the aqueducts. But as he tramped up and down the valleys, he noticed that most of the puquios ran parallel to the rivers, which seemed to make no sense if they were intended to capture the rivers' east-to-west flow. He decided the rivers couldn't be feeding the puquios. But what was?

Geologic faults, he reasoned. Natural aquifers enter the desert valley at various points where there are cracks in the bedrock. These geologic faults capture water as it flows down from the Andes and then carry it in deep fractures down the valleys, sometimes in a north-south direction. At first Johnson didn't associate his idea with the Nasca lines; his interest was water and nothing more. But then he noticed that whenever he found the source of an aquifer, he also found old habitation sites— and geoglyphs, especially giant trapezoids. When he topped the hill called Las Agujas ("The Needles") one day in July 1996, it came to him. The ancients knew where underground water was, settled near it, built aqueducts to capture it, and drew stone pictures on the ground to mark its location, extent, and direction of flow— the Nasca lines.

Johnson's method of locating sources of underground water was haphazard at best. He relied on dowsing, a technique thoroughly discredited by science. Nonetheless, prominent Nasca experts found part of his theory to have a certain inescapable logic. If people knew the location of water in such a dangerously hot place, surely they'd mark it somehow. Even though Johnson uses unorthodox techniques, Helaine Silverman, an archaeologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, begged her colleagues at a 1999 conference on Nasca research to "keep an open mind" while Steve Mabee gathered data to test Johnson's theory.

During three Nasca area field trips, Mabee has found strong evidence that alternative water sources exist, often just where Johnson said they were. He took water samples from rivers and from higher up on the valley walls at faults and springs; he compared their chemical signatures to see if they could possibly have different sources. "In all cases, the conductivity, salinity, and temperature are different from that of the river. Some of the water seems to come from the sides of the valleys, where the faults are, and not from the river." And in all the cases he tested, the faults were marked by geoglyphs.

Skeptics argue that so far Johnson and Mabee have gone about things backward. "Johnson has sought data only to support his ideas, rather than trying to disprove the negative," says Schreiber. In other words, he finds a fault, then finds a trapezoid that points to it rather than vice versa. "I think Johnson is right about some things, but not to the extent he claims," she adds. "His suggestion that faults direct water into the valley is correct in several instances. It does not, however, explain the sources of water of all the puquios." Six of the 39 puquios Schreiber has studied "seem to derive their water from sources on the valley sides," she notes. "Most of the rest begin right at, or under, the riverbed, indicating to me that an underground river is the primary source of water."

In the view of Schreiber and other experts, the very intricacy of the Nasca lines seems to mock a theory as straightforward and pragmatic as Johnson's. Many of the lines cross, crisscross, and recross; one image is superimposed on another as if later builders had utterly dismissed the value of previous work. "It's a bit of a Rorschach test," says Schreiber.

The Rorschach test led obsessive Nasca aficionados during decades past to fantasize that the biomorphs and geoglyphs were a giant astronomical calendar or map. This astronomical explanation has since been largely discredited (see "Written in the Stars?" page 76) as scientists have focused on more down-to-earth research, including an analysis of various archaeological relics that offer clues to Nasca culture.

Piecemeal evidence gathered over the years indicates the ancient inhabitants of the region took trophy heads from their enemies, buried their mummified dead in the sand, and had an intimate, complex relationship with nature and the other animals with whom they shared the desert. "Art on pottery and textiles are the symbols we use to try to interpret their culture," says Donald Proulx, an archaeologist from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst who's been studying the region for decades and is part of Johnson's research team. Proulx reads these symbols as a kind of naturalist's essay by a preliterate people, a groping toward explaining the relationship between humans and other animals that embodies a religious or moral purpose. "You see almost identical images in the biomorphs and on Nasca pottery," Proulx adds. "There are representations of supernatural forces— not deities in the Western sense but powerful forces of sky and earth and water whom they needed to propitiate for water and a good harvest."

Johan Reinhard, a cultural anthropologist and explorer in residence at the National Geographic Society, was the first to theorize that the Nasca lines probably had something to do with sacred rituals involving water. He found a contemporary analogue in Bolivia, where villagers walk along a straight line of stones to a hilltop shrine while dancing and praying for rain. Relics unearthed near some of the large trapezoidal drawings suggest a connection with water. "You find seashells, traditionally linked with water and fertility, and highly decorated ceremonial drinking vessels," Reinhard says. "The shells throughout the Andes are miniature representatives of water sources." Like Proulx, Reinhard also sees sacred symbolism in the biomorphs. "The spider and the monkey are fertility symbols linked with water," he says.

Other experts believe the biomorphs may have sprung from different impulses than the geoglyphs. Persis Clarkson, an archaeologist at the University of Winnipeg, has walked hundreds of miles of the pampa. Based on an analysis of potsherds found near prominent Nasca line features, she constructed a timescale showing that the first biomorphs were made around 200 B.C. and generally predate the geoglyphs by about 500 years. In addition, most of the biomorphs are confined to the northeastern quadrant of the pampa, which suggests they may have had little to do with the geoglyphs. One theory is that they may have been clan symbols.

While the biomorphs still remain largely inexplicable, Anthony Aveni thinks he may have discerned the underlying logic to the tangled mosaic of Nasca lines. "Peel them off one by one," he says, "and there is indeed a pattern; there is order there." Aveni was startled at first when he enlarged a section of a Nasca line map and whited out the animals, spirals, and trapezoids until he was left with nothing but the straight lines. What he noticed was that all the straight lines converged in the spoke patterns that he calls "ray centers." After months of subsequent fieldwork, Aveni and Gary Urton, an anthropologist at Colgate, identified at least 62 ray centers and some 800 straight lines. "Just about every line connects to a ray center," Aveni says, and virtually every ray center occurs on a hilltop "where water comes down from the highlands in rivers or streams and flows into the valley." Moreover, trapezoids are almost always nearby, and more often than not, the trapezoids are oriented parallel to the flow of surface water. Some are perpendicular to the water flow and butt up against the left side of stream banks. "Everything points to water," Aveni says.

Aveni and Urton suggest the Nasca lines may have been a precursor to a similar system of radial layouts that was a hallmark of the Inca empire during the late 15th and early 16th centuries. Among the Inca, anthropologists say, authority was seen as "at the center" rather than "on top of the heap," or a hierarchy. A ceque system imposed order on life: Roads radiated from Cuzco in the same way that 41 imaginary lines radiated from the Temple of the Sun— "the navel of the universe"— embodying the Incan worldview and symbolically binding together the social, economic, and religious life of the people.

Aveni's ray-center analysis, combined with circumstantial evidence accumulated by various archaeologists and anthropologists, now leads prominent Nasca experts to conclude that the lines served sacred purposes. The lines were meant to be walked and, most experts agree, led people to the ray centers and nearby trapezoids for water-connected rituals. Aveni and others can only speculate about what the exact nature of those rituals might have been. "I imagine different clans assembling in different places, walking different lines, maybe at different times," he says. Seen in a particular way, walking is an "acting out" of space; perhaps the people walked where they wished the water to flow: Come this way. "There are fossil pathways on the lines, and they probably had specific, ritualistic walking: Go this way, turn left or right, fathers go that way, brothers the other way, face the sun, and so on. People went to one hell of a lot of trouble to build these lines, so whatever their rituals were, they must have been deeply believed. I'm seeing a dedication of purpose by a very inventive people."

David Johnson steps over bright shards of broken pottery and walks past an ancient plundered grave. With the certainty of faith, he has vowed to keep walking the Nasca lines until he proves his own theory. He has already inspected 250 archaeological sites, he says, some of them 50 to 60 feet higher than the adjacent river and farther upslope than archaeologists might logically seek human habitation. He points out a circle of stones. "Where there are geoglyphs," he says, "in every case there also appears to be an archaeological site, geologic faults, and a source of freshwater."

Steve Mabee is not so quick to jump to conclusions. "Dave paints this glorious picture," he says. "But we don't see the evidence yet." His next step could establish statistically whether Johnson is on the right track. With graduate student Gregory Smith, Mabee will mark every verified water source in Nasca Valley on a map, then overlay a map of the geoglyphs and see if they match up. "I think we'll find a high percentage," Mabee says. "But we must have direct evidence to see whether it's a significant number or a coincidence."

Until then, he wishes Johnson would slow down a bit.

Anthony Aveni's book on theories (particularly his) purporting to decode the mysterious Nasca lines is Between the Lines: The Mystery of the Giant Ground Drawings of Ancient Nasca, Peru, the University of Texas Press, 2000. The original research of archaeologist Alfred Kroeber, who was one of the first to study the ancient Nascas, has recently been published for the first time: The Archaeology and Pottery of Nazca, Peru: Alfred L. Kroeber's 1926 Expedition, A. L. Kroeber, Donald Collier, Patrick H. Carmichael, Altamira Press, 1999. Don Proulx's Nasca Lines Project Web page:

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