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Digital Subscriptions > Skeptic > 21.4 > The Nazca Geoglyphs

The Nazca Geoglyphs

A Pictographic Creation Story

THE NAZCA GEOGLYPHS—POPULARLY KNOWN AS THE Nazca Lines—of southern Peru were first discovered in the 1920s and made public in the 1930s immediately became the subject of awe and controversy. The more speculative theories as to the origin and purpose of these enigmatic lines and biomorphic glyphs have ranged from ancient alien runways to some form of sacred geometry. This article will not deal with these fringe explanations as no scientist takes them seriously. Instead it: (1) critically examines the more recent and credible theories about the Nazca Geoglyphs, many of which revolve around the importance of water, and (2) proffers a novel argument about the purpose, function, and meaning of the biomorphic figures, as well as the more complex geometric shapes. The thesis is that the geoglyphs— specifically the figural geoglyphs on the San Jose Pampa—represent a permanent pictographic record of the creation myth(s) of the Nazca culture. Further, I propose that the figural geoglyphs were used in a religious and ritualistic fashion in at least two ways. First, they may have been used to re-enact key aspects of the creation myth for the purpose of restoring order to society through the production of rain or predictable floods. Second, the labyrinthine nature of the geoglyphs may have been used to induce trance states and allow access to the powers of various deities or important deceased ancestors. Reconstructing this creation myth I will attempt to bring back to life for the first time in nearly two thousand years an ancient Peruvian origin story.

I. Previous Scholarship

The history of Nazca scholarship is plagued by the same issues that obscure most academically informed fieldwork—a lack of interdisciplinary knowledge and interdepartmental communication. As scholars we can know only so much and often we are told to know more and more about less and less to the point that we know nearly everything about nearly nothing. An engineer might focus on how an ancient site was constructed, while an astronomer will, not surprisingly, believe an ancient site is astronomically aligned, but without the insights of a cultural anthropologist, both the engineer and the astronomer may project Western biases and miss the holistic picture. This is precisely what happened with the Nazca Lines.

The first two people to provide a lengthy and detailed account of the Nazca Lines were Paul Kosok and Maria Reiche. Maria Reiche has become something of a cultural icon as a champion for the living descendants of the original Nazca. For this reason her theory based in archaeoastronomy has exerted a strong impact on later research, even though it is lacking in scientific support. Kosok and Reiche posited that the numerous lineal figures stretching across the San Jose Pampa were used as a sort of star map or calendar.1 The idea likely came to Kosok on a 1941 trip to Nazca where he witnessed the sun setting directly over one of the lines. After a later trip to Nazca Kosok said, “A number of the lines and roads were found to have a solstitial direction: a few with an equinoctial direction could also be identified. Moreover, various alignments were found to be repeated in several places.”2

The main thrust of the argument is that the lines were used to predict the coming equinoxes and solstices. This knowledge was important since the Nazca people relied so heavily on farming, water, and their harvest. The biomorphic figures, rather than pointing to anything, represented the various constellations in their appearance and disappearance on the horizon. The major problem is that there are hundreds to thousands of lines going in all directions. It stands to reason that, statistically, “a few with equinoctial direction” would inevitably be found if that is what one is looking for. Why would the Nazca people make so many lines, make them so long and have so many seemingly unnecessary animal figures all over the desert floor? The ambiguities inherent in Kosok’s research did little to faze Reiche. Enlisted by Kosok to help in his research, she spent the next 40 years expounding on the ancient astronomical calendar theory.

The Nazca Lines, Trapezoids and Geoglyphs

(Names for the geoglyphs vary greatly, especially for bird-like figures.)

The initial critique of Kosok and Reiche came from fieldwork by Gerald Hawkins, and later by Anthony Aveni. Hawkins, an astronomer commissioned by National Geographic, pointed out that the lines of Nazca show no statistically significant results when compared with key astronomical events, specifically, solstices, equinoxes and lunar standstills. In addition, there were found to be no statistically significant alignments to astronomical bodies, such as the 45 brightest stars, including the brightest star of the Pleiades, which is known to be of importance in Andean cosmology. The result of Hawkins’ survey was definitive: “The lines as a whole cannot be explained as astronomical nor are they calendric.”3

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DECEPTION IN CANCER TREATMENT SPECIAL ISSUE: The Cancer-care Industry’s Marketing is Among the Most Deceptive on the Consumer Landscape. SPECIAL SECTION: Classic Skepticism: The Amityville Hoax at 40; Alien Sulls: Do the Mysterious Rhodope Skull and Adygea Skulls Belong to Aliens?; The Real Meaning Behind the Nazca Geoglyphs; Clown Panics: Sightings of Mysterious Clowns Rattle Nerves ARTICLES: The Case for a Galactic Defense System; Is “Spirituality” so Broadly Defined that Testing for it is Meaningless?; Are We Living in a Computer Simulation?; Luck and Regression to the Mean: One of the Most Fundamental Sources of Error in Human Judgment; Political Obfuscation: Thinking Critically about Public Discourse. COLUMNS: The SkepDoc: Anti-Aging Claims: The Fountain of Youth is Still Only a Legend, by Harriet Hall, M.D.; The Gadfly: Can Working Memory Be Trained to Work Better? by Carol Tavris REVIEWS: “Three books about the Salem Witch Trials and their legacy: The Witches: Salem, by Stacy Schiff; In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692, by Mary Beth Norton; America Bewitched: America Bewitched: The Story of Witchcraft After Salem, by Owen Davies JUNIOR SKEPTIC: Mammoth Mysteries! Part Two, by Daniel Loxton