Desert Mystery

Decades after their discovery, the Nazca Lines still have visitors pondering the origins and meaning of the giant, ancient markings -- a spider, a whale, an astronaut and more -- that are visible only from the air

January 28, 2007|By Larry Bleiberg | Larry Bleiberg,The Dallas Morning News

NAZCA, Peru -- Everyone here, it seems, has a theory about the Nazca Lines.

The mysterious markings on the desert floor are a massive astronomical calendar. That's a popular one.

Or maybe they point to hidden reserves of water, the source of life in the desert.

Then there's my favorite: UFO landing site. Forty years ago, Danish writer Erich Von Daniken popularized that theory with his best-selling book Chariots of the Gods?

Now, strapped into a four-passenger Cessna circling over a figure called the astronaut, I'm not sure what to think. One of its hands points to the sky, another to the ground. His owlish eyes stare into mine.

Look at me, the 1,500-year-old seems to say. Can you solve my mystery?

Here's what's known: For hundreds of years, the Nazca (also spelled Nasca) people created lines on the ground. Some form familiar figures: a spider, hummingbird and dog. Others - a whale, monkey and parrot - don't belong in the desert at all.

The only way to see the Nazca Lines is from the air. That makes them even more mysterious. How did pre-Inca people make these images without being able to fly? And what was the point of forming lines if they couldn't appreciate their glory? The lines weren't even discovered until the late 1920s, when a pilot flew over the area and was astonished to see eyes looking up at him.

Thanks to the ancient people, the town of Nazca now has a veritable air force: More than a dozen companies fly planes over the lines. The tours are an industry, as indicated by the handwritten sign taped to my plane's instrument console. "Tips are welcome," it says in six languages.

Not bad for a dusty desert town of about 20,000, a six-hour bus ride south of Lima. The modern city of Nazca, a place that gets less than an inch of rain a year, owes its prosperity to the mysterious markings. Statues inspired by the desert figures decorate the town plaza. Sketches of the lines are everywhere else. Elongated hummingbirds mark store signs, while a lizard graces City Hall. On sidewalks, brass inlays of a monkey and spider reflect the sun.

But the lines might have been forgotten without Maria Reiche. She came to Peru from Germany in the 1930s as a tutor and eventually dedicated her life to documenting the creations. For years, she surveyed the area, measuring the markings and pondering their meaning.

"To the local people, she was the gringa loca, the crazy woman sweeping the desert," said Bruno Huancahuari, who works at the Maria Reiche Foundation, a museum built at her former home outside Nazca. Displays include her hand-drawn maps and the Volkswagen microbus she used for explorations.

The world came around to Reiche's way of thinking before she died in 1998. Her statue now overlooks the city plaza. UNESCO declared the area a World Heritage Site, but not before some lines were destroyed by development - the Pan American Highway cuts a lizard's tail in half.

Only a few spots allow visitors to get a close look at the lines. A roadside fire tower, built with Reiche's funds, provides a view of two figures: a tree and a pair of hands. Like the astronaut and monkey, the two hands have only nine fingers total. Another mystery.

But the city is generous with theories. Here's one explanation offered to me by a guide: Nazca has nine months of blazing summer heat, thus nine fingers.

Maybe so. But to understand the lines, I wanted to see them from ground level. A half-mile from the tower, visitors can get a desert-level view of the creations. I kneel to look straight down a line. I see no monkeys, whales or spiders. Just a long, straight pathway bordered with stones and disappearing into the distance in the dusty desert.

The markings were made by clearing away dark rock, exposing white soil below. Archaeologists have demonstrated that using sophisticated surveying techniques it would have been possible for the Nazcans to create figures working from a small model expanded to a large scale. That's probably how they were built. But one researcher has shown that the Nazcans also could have built hot-air balloons to supervise the construction from above. We'll never know. The Nazcan culture disappeared, eventually absorbed by the Incas.

Reiche spent her final years at the Hotel Nazca Lines, where she received free room and board in exchange for nightly lectures, during which she wrestled with questions such as these.

The hotel keeps the tradition alive with a nightly planetarium show. I drop in one evening, browsing in the lobby gift shop before a German couple and I are led outside to a circular wooden building for a presentation in English.

As Peruvian flute music plays, the lights dim and an astronomer reviews the theories behind the lines. Reiche, it's noted, came to believe the lines were a star calendar, and that gets a thorough examination as lines and stars trace across the planetarium screen.

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