What Are the Nazca Lines and Why Were They Made?
About 250 miles south of Lima, Peru, you’ll find the arid desert plains of the Rio Grande de Nazca river basin. This area receives less than one inch of rain each year, making it one of the driest places on Earth. It’s also home to the Nazca Lines which are so large and cover about 290 square miles. Contrary to the popular belief that the lines and figures can only be seen from an aircraft, they are visible from the surrounding foothills and other high places.
The Nazca Lines are a series of large ancient geoglyphs in the Nazca Desert, in southern Peru. The largest figures are up to 370 m (1,200 ft) long. They were designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994. Although some local geoglyphs resemble Paracas motifs, scholars believe the Nazca Lines were created by the Nazca culture between 500 BCE and 500 CE. The figures vary in complexity.
The Nazca Lines consist of over 800 straight lines (some of which are about 30 miles long), more than 300 geometric designs (triangles, rectangles, trapezoids, spirals, arrows, wavy lines, etc.), and approximately 70 pictorial representations of plants and animals (called biomorphs), including a dog, lizard, duck, spider, hummingbird, monkey, whale, llama, cactus, flower, and tree.
The designs are shallow lines made in the ground by removing naturally occurring reddish pebbles and uncovering the whitish/grayish ground beneath. Scientists believe the lines were made by carefully removing the top 12-15 inches of rust-colored pebbles that line the desert floor. Doing so reveals a layer of lighter-colored sand below. When you see the scale of the Nazca Lines from above, you gain an appreciation for what a monumental feat this was.
Scholars differ in interpreting the purpose of the designs but, in general, they ascribe religious significance to them. Because of its isolation and the dry, windless, stable climate of the plateau, the lines have mostly been preserved naturally. Extremely rare changes in weather may temporarily alter the general designs. Fortunately, the lack of rain combined with the fact that the desert area gets little wind and suffers little erosion means the Nazca Lines have changed very little over the last two centuries.
But why were they created in the first place?
Although the Nazca Lines have been studied for more than 80 years they remain largely a mystery. Theories abound, but scientists still don’t know definitively why the Nazca Lines were created. The first scientists to study the Nazca Lines believed they may have corresponded to important calendar events or astronomical phenomena. Others believe they were made by aliens. Later studies have led researchers to believe that the geoglyphs may point to places where important rituals were held to pray to ancient gods for rain.
The Nazca Lines will continue to be studied to learn more about how and why an ancient culture created these lasting marks on the desert floor. They’ll also be the focus of renewed conservation efforts. Although there’s relatively little threat from Mother Nature, human beings are another issue. As of 2012, the lines are said to have been deteriorating because of an influx of squatters inhabiting the lands.
In 2014, members of environmental group Greenpeace damaged an area near the hummingbird geoglyph during a publicity stunt. Then, in 2018, a commercial truck driver drove over part of the Nazca Lines, damaging an area approximately 100 feet by 330 feet.