The Pampa Colorado (Red Plain) is a 37-mile-long (60-kilometer) and 15-mile-wide (24-kilometer) plateau in the coastal desert of southern Peru near the town of Nazca. Across its broad face are carved staggeringly cyclopean patterns, an agglomeration of designs on the earth’s surface known as geoglyphs, which portray animals, birds, and other forms, mostly made by removing the dark reddish brown surface to expose a lighter-colored substratum; in some places piled rocks define the enigmatic forms. The challenge presented to the modern imagination by this ancient engineering feat is threefold: its momentous scale and the accuracy of surveying techniques that could project straight lines for miles over irregular terrain are remarkable enough. Beyond them is the uncanny ability of a people whose entire spatial experience was planar, never far above the surface of the earth, to conceive of geometric patterns and representational images whose accuracy and intricacy could be fully appreciated only from high—indeed, very high—above.
The Nazca Lines, as they are called, comprise literally thousands of zigzag, parallel, crossed, or radiating lines: some are 6 feet (1.8 meters) wide, others just a tenth of that. Some stretch for 6 miles (10 kilometers), maintaining their straightness regardless of the uneven topography. There are also simple or complex geometric shapes, including triangles and rectangles, nearly twenty varieties of fantastic birds, a monkey, a spider, a dog, a fish, a tree, and a hummingbird represented. As to their size: the monkey occupies the area of a football stadium; one bird has a 350-foot (100-meter) wingspan; and the spider, among the smallest geoglyphs, has a diameter of 150 feet (45 meters). Together, the lines and figures cover 45 square miles (115 square kilometers). Of course, they are best seen from above and were discovered only when aircraft first crossed the area in the 1930s.
The origin of the lines remains uncertain, although because of their similarity to design motifs on other artifacts, they are attributed to the well-developed Nazca civilization, which flourished between 200 b.c. and a.d. 600. Based on the same evidence, some sources suggest that three successive cultures were responsible for the lines: the Paracas (900–200 b.c.), the Nazcas, and later settlers who migrated from Ayacucho around a.d. 630.
Each culture was agrarian and it is likely that the lines may have been associated with rituals to guarantee a rich crop. On the other hand, the German anthropologist Dr. Maria Reiche, who studied the Nazca Lines for nearly fifty years, believed that they were a vast astronomical calendar, also associated with farming. Studies in the 1980s led others to the conclusion that, while part of elaborate rituals related to fertility, the lines had neither astronomical nor calendrical significance. A decade later a new theory emerged: they charted the origins and courses of aquifers—rivers beneath the desert—associated with irrigation farming in the region. In our modern culture of scientism we disengage the rational from the spiritual, and care must be taken to avoid too simple an interpretation of the actions of people whose universe was better integrated. All of the suggestions about the purpose of the Nazca Lines could be accurate
Even in their own time and place the Nazca Lines were not an isolated phenomenon. Many geoglyphs are to be found throughout South America. Areas with lines and figures very like Nazca’s have been studied on the central Peruvian coast between the Fortaleza, Pativilca, and Rimac Valleys. Others have been found in the Viru Valley, on Peru’s north coast, and in the Zana Valley, more than 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) north of Nazca. More examples of ground figures and hill figures survive on the other side of the world. The 370-foot-long (110-meter) White Horse (ca. 500 b.c.) cut into the chalk hills at Uffington is among Britain’s most famous, second only to the pre-Christian Cerne Giant in Dorset, a 180-foot-tall (54-meter) human figure, carrying a 120-foot (36-meter) club; there is also the Long Man of Wilmington, Sussex.
As late as 1998 a 2.5-mile-tall (4-kilometer) figure of an aboriginal warrior was discovered carved on the desert floor near Marree in the South Australian outback. It was soon exposed as a hoax, created with the help of satellite tracking equipment and earthmoving machinery The very fact of the difficulty of making such a figure using modern technology emphasizes more the incredible achievement of the ancient creators of the Nazca Lines.