Lines in the Desert

22 January 2012


The Humboldt current (also called the Peru current) circulates cold water from Antarctica along this section of the South American coast, and this current only turns back into the center of the Pacific at the equator. The combination of the cold Humboldt current and the Andes running close to the coast create a natural air conditioner that has made the Atacama desert of Northern Chile the driest place in the world, and deserts of the Peruvian coast nearly as dessicated. But there seems to be just enough water hidden among the dry, gray hills around Nazca to make life and a little bit of agriculture possible. I expected to see desert; I did not expect to see the occasional green valley between the otherwise barren hills.

At the Nazca airport, where many small four- and six-passenger planes fly over the lines in the desert.

The most astonishing feature of Nazca, and that which has made it a tourist destination for the work entire (lots of European tourists are in evidence in Nazca, though relatively few from North America) is a feature of the unique climate, and this is the network of lines and figures drawn into the sand of the desert. The aridity of the climate ensures that weather is almost entirely unknown here, which means that a change to the surface of the desert is largely unaffected by the natural weathering processes present elsewhere. The early Nazca culture bequeathed a patrimony to the world and a steady income to their distant descendents by carving lines in the desert and otherwise altering the appearance of the desert in a systematic way.

Some of the famous designs are surprisingly difficult to see from the air. “The Whale” is somewhere in this picture, but can't been picked out, although the geometrical patterns are clearly visible. A lot of this has to do with light conditions and the hours of the day and season of the year that one flies over the lines.

It is relatively easy to understand how the lines were made — push a stick in the sand and drag it some distance and the furrow of the plow brings a different color of sand to the surface. From an engineering stand point I was more interested in the large geometrically-defined spaces and long lines, which are a different color that the other parts of the desert, but which could not be made by the same simple method as the lines. The Ancient Civilizations of Peru by J. Alden Mason explains these spaces:

“The small stones that cover the surface probably contain iron, and the suns of many millennia have formed a dark patina on their upper faces. These stones were removed from certain areas by the ancient peoples and piled at the edges of these places, leaving designs in the lighter-colored sand and gravel below.” (p. 88)

This method is simplicity itself, and accords in this respect with the methods of ancient peoples in the construction of their geoglyphs. It is an irony of human history that the most lasting and durable works of human beings have been among those earliest works created by the simplest methods — geoglyphs, petroglyphs, and megaliths created by peoples some might well deny the status of being “civilized.” If the geoglyphs of Nazca or the cave paintings of France and Spain or the megaliths found around the world are not the work of civilized peoples, so much the worse for civilization. This constitutes prima facie evidence that that which is uniquely human and of enduring if not perennial value can be isolated apart from civilization.

This waving figure is sometimes called the “Astronauta.”

In my formative years the books by Erich von Däniken, and the films based on these books, were quite popular. I myself read the books and saw the films. I have to wonder now, many decades later, how many people in the industrialized world had heard of the lines of Nazca before his work. While there is a sense in which von Däniken can be credited for bringing some of the astonishing works of antiquity to wide attention, but one has to ask if it was all worth the price that was paid. There continues to be a popular culture industry is promoting such artifacts as the consequence of alien visitation, and in fact the first figure shown to us today, a friendly figure waving to the sky, is called the “Astronauta” — the astronaut. For this, von Däniken deserves the credit or the blame, as you prefer.

This was the best picture that I got of any of the Nazca lines, although the most obvious figure was the hummingbird. It is very difficult to get a good picture from the airplane without good photographic equipment. The kind of inexpensive digital camera with which I travel is nearly useless in the glare of the sun. Anyone wanting to get good pictures should take an SLR camera, or anthing that allows you to look through a viewfinder.

The most obvious geoglyph as seen from above is the highway — indeed, the Panamericana runs right through the center of the most famous lines and figures. One has to wonder if the road had been built today if some kind of detour around this unique-in-the-world archaeological site might have been considered. On the other hand, none of the actual figures seems to have been bisected, so that this industrial-age vandalism to a prehistoric site could have been worse.

Just as evident, if not more evident than the lines, are the dry riverbeds and tracks of ancient water flows.

After the highway, the next most obvious feature as seen from above is an enormous dry riverbed. There are many traces of water flow that I guess to be ancient, but given the lack of weather in his desert, they might be from a few weeks or months ago. One suspects there are flash floods here, probably highly infrequently, but their traces are retained for the same reason that the geoglyphs are retained. Walking around Nazca today after the overflight of the lines, I walked over a bridge that crosses a dry riverbed. For someone from the Pacific Northwest, where there are no empty riverbeds and empty stream courses, it is an odd feeling.

Coming in for a landing at the Nazca airport.

The lines of Nazca can be difficult to see, and many of the famous figures are difficult to make out, though the assemblage of the site on the whole is striking: the ground has be altered over a vast tract of land. On the one hand, the site is enormous, on the other hand, it is fairly well defined and confined to a definite area. No doubt experts can cite many examples further afield, and relics of the Nazca culture extend throughout the region, but that part of the desert that has been utterly transformed by the lines and figures of Nazca is as carefully grouped as if it were designed to be an archaeological park.

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I previously wrote about the Nazca culture in Civilization: A Rope or a Broom?

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Grand Strategy Annex

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