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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Nazca to Ica

23 January 2012


A short distance north of Nazca, along the Panamericana, and situated between the designs of the “hands” (“manos“) and the “tree” (“arbol“), there is a tower (the “Torre Mirador”) that can be climbed, probably about 40 or 50 feet in height, in order to view some part of the lines of Nazca without flying over them. This close-up view of the lines clearly reveals the construction methods that I quoted yesterday (in Lines in the Desert) from Mason’s The Ancient Civilizations of Peru — stones have been removed from within geometrically defined areas and the removed stones have been piled at the edges of the designs. The piled stones not only represent the space cleared, but the piles themselves serve to make the demarcation between cleared and non-cleared areas all the more obvious, making the distinction more visually striking.

This construction technique was also used at nearby Palpa, and continues to be effective in the present day, as driving along the Panamericana (once outside the archaeologically preserved area) one sees a variety of messages spelled out in the desert, from the initials and names of individuals to fairly elaborate advertisements for small roadside stores.

In my naïveté I though that any intrepid visitor of sufficient curiosity might walk out into the desert and and look at the construction of the lines for themselves, but the desert has been fenced off along the Panamericana to prevent further damage to the lines, and once made aware of the threat it becomes immediately obvious how damaged many of the lines and figures are, which accounts for some of the difficulty in seeing some of the patterns from the air. Some — but not all.

Much is revealed by a close inspection (as one can gain from the tower along the Panamericana) that is lost in a distant view from the air, just as much is revealed in a distant inspection from the air that is close in the close-up view from near the ground. This is a perfect concrete illustration of what I was recently writing about in relation to the distinction between constructive and non-constructive thought (in P or not-P). In this post (on my other blog) I employed an image taken from Alain Connes to illustrate the constructive/non-constructive distinction such that the constructive perspective is like that of a mountain climber while the non-constructive perspective is like that of a visitor who flies over the summit of a mountain laboriously climbed by the other.

Any thorough investigation will want to make use of both perspectives in order to obtain the most comprehensive perspective possible — even though each perspective has its blind spots and its shadows that compromise our perspective on the whole. Indeed, it is precisely because each perspective incorporates deficits specific to the perspective that one will want to supplement any one perspective without another perspective with a different set of specific deficits. Between two or more fundamentally different perspectives on any one state-of-affairs there is the possibility of constructing the comprehensive conception that is excluded by any one perspective in isolation.

The two perspectives offered on the Nazca lines by the tower and an airplane flyover also reminded me of a point that I imperfectly attempted to make in my post on Epistemic Orders of Magnitude, in which I employed aerial photographs of cities in order to demonstrate the similar structures of cities transformed in the imagine of industrial-technological civilization. This similarity in structure may be masked by one’s experience of an urban area from the perspective of passing through the built environment on a human scale — i.e., simply walking through a city, which is how most people experience an urban area.

Now, in light of what I have subsequently written about constructivism, I might say that our experience of a built environment is intrinsically constructive, except for that of the urban planner or urban designer, who must see (or attempt to see) things whole. However, the urban planner must also inform his or her work with the street-level “constructive” perspective or the planning made exclusively from a top-down perspective is likely to be a failure. Almost all of the most spectacular failures in urban design have come about from an attempt to impose, from the top down, a certain vision and a certain order which may be at odds with the organically emergent order that rises from the bottom up.

This reflection gives us yet another perspective on utopianism, which I have many times tried to characterize in my attempts to show the near (not absolute) historical inevitability of utopian schemes transforming themselves upon their attempted implementation into dystopian nightmares — the utopian planner attempts to design from a purely non-constructive perspective without the benefit of a constructive perspective. This dooms the utopian plans to inevitable blindspots, shadows, and deficits. The oversights of a single perspective then, in the fullness of time, create the conditions for cascading catastrophic failure.

Historically speaking, it is not difficult to see how this comes about. After the astonishing planned cities of early antiquity, many from prehistoric societies that have left us little record except for their admirably regular and disciplined town plans, Europeans turned to a piecemeal, organic approach to urbanism. Once this approach was rapidly outgrown when cities began their burgeoning growth with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, it was a natural response on the part of Haussman-esque planners to view organic urbanism as a “failure” that necessitated replacement by another model that envisioned the already-built environment as a tabula rasa to be re-built according to rational standards. Cities henceforth were to be wholly planned to address to inadequacies of the medieval pattern of non-planning, which could not cope with cities with populations that now numbered in the millions.

I have observed elsewhere (in my Political Economy of Globalization) that many ancient prehistoric societies were essentially utopian constructions over which a god-king presided as a living god, present in the flesh among his people, and indeed some of the most striking examples of ancient town planning date from societies that exhibited (or seem to have exhibited) this now-vanished form of order. For only where a god-king is openly acknowledged as such can a social order based upon living and present divinity within the said social order be possible.

Nazca, however, does not seem to have been based on this social plan of a divinely-sanctioned social order which can bring utopian (and therefore likely non-constructive, top-down) planning into actual practice because of the physical presence of the god in the midst of his people. The book that I cited yesterday, The Ancient Civilizations of Peru by J. Alden Mason, has this to say of Nazca society:

“…the general picture seems to be one of a sedentary democratic people without marked class distinctions or authoritarianism, possibly without an established religion. There is less difference in the ‘richness’ or poverty of the graves, and women seem to be on an equality with men in this respect. The apparent absence of great public works, of extensive engineering features, and of temple pyramids implies a lack of authoritarian leadership. Instead, the leisure time of the people seems to have been spent in individual production, especially in the making of quantities of perfect, exquisite textiles and pottery vessels. This seems to indicate a strong cult of ancestor-worship. Cloths on which an incredible amount of labor was spent were made especially for funerary offerings and interred with the dead. The orientation seems to have been towards individualized religion rather than towards community participation, dictation, coercion, and aggression.”

J. Alden Mason, The Ancient Civilizations of Peru, Penguin Books, 1968, p. 85

Such egalitarian societies focused on the satisfaction of consumer demands were rare in the ancient world, but we should not be surprised that it was an egalitarian society, organized constructively from the bottom up, that produced the astonishing lines in the desert of the Nazca. Without an aerial perspective, the making of these lines was a thoroughly constructivistic undertaking, not even counter-balanced by a non-constructive perspective, which has only been obtained long after the Nazca civilization has disappeared, leaving only traces of itself in the dessicated sands of the desert.

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While I am posting this a couple of days after the fact, this entire account was written in longhand on the day here described.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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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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Lima to Nazca

21 January 2012


I tried to take a picture to do justice to the chaos of traffic in Lima, but ultimately you have to this level of craziness in action in order to fully appreciate it.

Having seen Lima’s traffic in action for a couple of days I was hesitant to rent a car. Maybe it would be more honest to say that I was scared to attempt to drive in Lima, but I convinced myself that by renting in Miraflores I would would be on the far southern edge of the city and would not have to go through the heart of downtown (or indeed anywhere near downtown) in order to find a major highway out of the city. For although I was impressed by the cleanliness of Lima’s downtown when I walked it yesterday, the taxi ride into downtown was something else again. My driver seemed to me more skilled than a Formula One driver in negotiating the moving obstacles of other vehicles in the chaos that is Lima traffic. In short, I was impressed, and didn’t see myself as equal to the task.

My feet bathed in the Peruvian Pacific.

Working in my favor was the fact that it is Saturday, and traffic in Miraflores was noticeably less crazy than what I saw on the weekdays. There was some minor craziness in escaping the city (for example, I was very nearly involved in a collision), but once out of the city it was smooth sailing along the autopista. Also after leaving the city, the Panamericana runs along the ocean with the water in sight of the freeway, which makes for some dramatically beautiful views. I was reminded both of Oregon’s coastal highway 101 and the Panamericana futher south in Chile, where the highway also runs in parallel with the ocean. I stopped at one beach, took off my shoes, and walked into the surf. I feel robbed of an experience if I go the beach without getting my feet wet in the ocean. Although the ocean water here was in no sense “warm,” it was noticeably warmer than the waters of the Pacific that lap on the shores of Oregon.

Sunset on the Pacific from the Panamericana.

The highway from Lima to Chincha was in wonderful repair, and looked pretty new — it is a divided highway with two lanes running in each direction. It is easy to make good time on this stretch of road. The road narrows to one lane in each direction at Chincha and continues in this way to Nazca, although still in excellent repair — no potholes, visible lines painted on the road, a highway patrol car on the side of the road at regular intervals, emergency telephones, and reasonably good signage. Peru’s recent years of economic growth are here on display in visible infrastructure improvements, and the highway carries a steady stream of commerce in the form of truck traffic. From Ica to Nazca, however, the road involves many serpentine curves which slows down the traffic quite a bit, but that is due to the nature of the landscape and not the condition of the road.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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