Ancient Symbols in the Sand

By Chris Iovenko
The New York Times, January 7, 2001

In the southern desert of Peru there exists a puzzling expanse of hundreds of geoglyphs, or earth drawings, known as the Nazca lines. They cover a 200-square-mile area and consist both of geometric designs and a varied group of huge figures that depict animals, birds, fish and insects. Because of their size (the smallest animal figure is 80 feet long, while the largest, a stylized heron, is 900 feet) the designs are best seen from the air. Though they are presumed to have been created by the Nazca Indians around 2,000 years ago, little is known about their purpose or meaning. And because of the lack of an agreed upon, credible explanation, the Nazca lines have ascended to the pantheon of the unexplained to join ranks with the face on Mars and the Loch Ness monster.

Aerial photo of Nazca lines

As a teenager I read Erich von Daniken's book "Chariots of the Gods," which theorizes that the Nazca lines might have served as landing strips for extraterrestrial craft, and ever since, I've been fascinated by the mystery. So when my girlfriend, Jessie, and I decided take a Peru tour in August, I eagerly included the lines on our itinerary.

We booked a 17-day tour with Adventure Life Journeys, a Montana-based company that specializes in Peru. When we arrived in Lima we were met by our guide, Fredy Manrique, and the next day departed by bus for Pisco.

The bus trip from Lima to Nazca, if taken nonstop, runs about eight hours, but a diversion to the Islas Ballestas is worthwhile. A group of rocky islands off the coast near Pisco, a five-hour bus ride from Lima, they are part of the Reserva Nacional del Paracas and attract a wide variety of such wildlife as sea lions and penguins. More remarkably, one of the cliffsides is also the site of a geoglyph called the Candelabro.

To see the Candelabro we boarded a launch that took us out into the bay, stopping a half-mile off shore. At this distance we got a good view. It was a foggy, windy day, and through the haze the 800-foot-long geoglyph looked spectral and strange. Its shape is puzzling -- a stalk surmounted by three arms decorated with what look like finials. The geoglyph vaguely resembles a candelabrum, but the guide explained that the figure represented was most likely a hallucinogenic cactus sacred to the ChavĂ­n, another prominent pre-Inca culture. As we listened to the explanation, one of several conflicting theories, a small human form trudged along the sand right below the figure.

What's amazing about the Peruvian geo glyphs, dug, as they are, several feet deep in the sand, is how long they've lasted, given how fragile and vulnerable to change they appear to be. As I watched the hiker, it occurred to me that all it would seemingly take for the Candelabro to be ruined would be for that lone person to alter his course and climb upward through the sandy face of the hill. But people have respected these delicate works of an ancient culture, as has, more inadvertently, nature. What has really preserved the Candelabro for perhaps a thousand years is an extremely arid climate where only an inch and a half of rain has fallen in the past 20 years.

After the Islas Ballestas, we boarded a bus again and headed south on the Pan-American Highway to the town of Nazca. There we transferred to a taxi for the trip down a long unpaved road to our hotel, La Borda. Unlike the small modern hotels we'd stayed in until that point on our trip, La Borda was formerly a sprawling colonial hacienda. What it lacked in amenities (our room was spartan and the plumbing ancient) was made up for by the lush surrounding vegetation and dusty elegance of the buildings.

We walked for half an hour around the complex of brick and adobe buildings under eaves and lattices covered with overhanging orange and red bougainvillea. With the temperature in the 60's, hummingbirds darting in and out of the flowers and unseen birds trilling in the nearby jacaranda trees, it seemed arcadian.

The next morning we had breakfast of fried eggs and sliced papaya. We drank mate de coca, cocoa leaf tea, the traditional Inca drink recommended by our guide for the potential airsickness we might experience later in the flyover of the Nazca lines. We then boarded a tiny van and headed off first to see the Nazca necropolis at Chauchilla. After the lush oasis of La Borda, the desert plain was strikingly arid and desolate, the sun's light harsh and unremitting, and the occasional human or animal figure seemed to huddle in what scant bits of shade were provided by an almost lunar landscape.

When I think of the sites of successful early civilizations, a picture comes to mind of fertile crescents and river valleys ideally suited for farming. One striking aspect of the Inca and pre-Inca is that they often created culture and civilization in very inhospitable places. They were masters of agricultural terracing and irrigation, but even with water piped in, life in this desert couldn't have been easy.

Photo of Nazca mummy

Chauchilla consists of several acres of excavated and unexcavated Nazca tombs. Between the graves the earth is littered with sun-bleached bones and fragments of ancient textiles. As we walked to the first open tomb, the guide at the site explained that the scattered bones were debris left from grave robbing before the tombs were properly guarded. She stopped by a six-foot-deep grave. At the bottom sat a mummy curled in the fetal position favored by the Nazca when they buried their dead. It wore a beautiful woven shawl but had a particularly ghastly expression because of a decomposed face, an unhinged jaw and a dusty black mat of hair.

The guide explained that the mummy used to be in better shape, but sadly, exposure to the elements in the past few years had degraded its appearance. It seemed strange that more resources weren't dedicated to preserving these ancient relics. But Peru is a poor country, and one doesn't have to stray far off the beaten trail to get a sense of a tourist industry that is still in its infancy.

After the tour of the cemetery, we headed for the Nazca airstrip, a small affair crowded with backpackers. At $40 a person, most visitors choose to see the lines by plane, and the wait can be quite long. With the aid of the ever-resourceful Fredy, however, we quickly secured a four-passenger, single-engine Cessna.

As soon as we were airborne, we could see that the desert below us was traversed with faint lines as though it had been tilled by giant plows. Then, through the hazy heat, we saw a break in the lines and an indistinct shape. The pilot circled around to get a closer look. Still the design remained faint and unclear and only slightly darker in outline than its sandy background. The pilot shouted back that the mystery shape was a condor.

The next figures proved much more impressive. A monkey with a vast spiral tail was followed in short order by a hummingbird, a whale, a fox and a waving man with an oddly shaped head, referred to as the owl man or spaceman. These forms were clearly articulated and beautiful. Some, such as the hummingbird, were composed of a pattern of straight lines and angles that had a tightly controlled geometry. Others, like the spaceman and the monkey, seemed fluid and unrestrained in their design, like easy brushstrokes on canvas.

During the 25-minute flight, I was struck by the density and variety of the geoglyphs and by their almost whimsical quality. It's not hard to see why there has been such an onslaught of theories about the Nazca. Ancient architecture and art are usually understood and explained according to their purpose or cultural function. But the Nazca lines have no readily understood practical application and as art they seem obscure. What, especially in an area where resources are scarce, would compel generations of people to create art whose very scale and method prohibits them from appreciating it?

Theories abound. As mentioned, various U.F.O. postulations such as Erich von Daniken's have been popular but, not surprisingly, scientists give them little credence. Maria Reiche, a German mathematician who spent most of her life studying and protecting the lines, supported the theory that they are a giant astronomical calendar. In the 1980's a group of people created and flew (for 60 seconds) a simple fabric hot- air balloon to bolster the theory that the Nazca were capable of flight. Still others have said the lines are a guide to water sources or that the figures were created as a form of worship or tribute to the Nazca's mountain gods.

It's unlikely that we will ever know. There are no surviving Nazca, and there is no known written record of their culture. It's even possible that the lines might have been created by an earlier and entirely different culture. What is clear is that the Nazca lines form a unique and compelling puzzle piece in the history of an ancient people. They can be appreciated without a history lesson as a beautiful reminder of man's constant struggle to fill his blank spaces -- whether they be empty pages, sheets of canvas or miles of sand -- with dreams and meaning.

The New York Times on the Web