Addendum on the Lines of Nazca

25 January 2012


In a couple of posts about the Nazca lines, Lines in the Desert and Nazca to Ica, I twice quoted The Ancient Civilizations of Peru by J. Alden Mason, firstly on the method used to construct the lines at Nazca — moving stones out of a given area — and on the apparent nature of Nazca society — egalitarian and non-hierarchical.

While I cited these passages in separate posts, I now see how the two go together. Mason notes that Nazca society did not involve the kind of monumental architecture that we see in technologically equivalent societies. Although there was a ceremonial center at Cahauchi (I didn’t get to Cahauchi while I was in Nazca), which I understand is an enormous architecture complex, the line are the primary legacy of the Nazca culture, and lines in the desert are the different different kind of legacy than, say, the multiple and monumental pyramids of the Mayans or the Egyptians.

If Mason is right about the decentralized and egalitarian society of the Nazca, focused on the production of consumer goods such as textiles and pottery, and the megalomaniacs of Nazca society were not (as elsewhere) given state power to create monuments to themselves, it would be reasonable to suppose that the monuments of Nazca society were also decentralized — and the lines of the Nazca must be among the most decentralized of archaeological monuments, spread as they are over miles of desert.

Given the incredible simplicity of the method of the construction of the lines at Nazca it is entirely plausible to me that a non-authoritarian, decentralized, and egalitarian society could have produced these great works in a way entirely consistent with its social structure. Mason wrote that the textiles and pottery produced by the Nazca culture were often employed as grave goods, suggesting a significant ancestor cult. It should be noted in this context that textiles and pottery are produced either by individual craftsmen or small workshops. I can imagine a family commissioning works of cloth or pottery for an elaborate interment rich with grave goods.

In the same way I can imagine an individual or a family commissioning a particular pattern in the desert. A single shaman, or a small community of them, might set themselves up in business creating patterns in the desert. The work would be tedious, but it could be accomplished by one or a few persons. With a length of cord a straight line can be marked, and then one or two or a handful of persons (maybe an shaman and an apprentice) could patiently move the stones out of the area bounded by the length of cord, stacking them at the end.

The point here is the this is the kind of monument that could be created by one person or a few persons with sufficient time — like textiles or pottery. Given an economy that already supports individuals and small groups dedicated to the production of specialty works, the lines of Nazca may have been similarly specialty works undertaken by one or a few persons. Given an income for the work (freeing the workmen from the necessity of otherwise earning a living), and many generations of commissions, a relatively small number of persons might well fill a desert with overlapping symbols.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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