Nasca, the name given by archaeologists to the culture that inhabited the valleys of Ica, Chincha, Pisco, Nazca, and Acarí on the south coast of Peru during the Early Intermediate Period (ca. 370 bce–ce 540). The Nasca people, descended from the Paracas, flourished for nearly a millennium until being absorbed by the Huari (Wari) Empire around 540.
The nature of Nasca society, and in particular its political organization, has been the subject of much debate. Like other Peruvian coastal peoples, the Nasca farmed the river valley bottoms and irrigated their fields, growing a large inventory of crops. Their sophisticated water delivery systems, called puquios, allowed them to tap underground rivers and streams and redirect the water through a series of canals to their fields. Throughout the area of the five valleys between Ica and Acarí, the Nasca produced a remarkably uniform culture, which seems to suggest that this area may have been controlled by a small empire or state-level government. The frequent artistic depictions of warriors and trophy heads perhaps suggest a conquest-oriented political organization.
The capital of the Nasca polity is believed to be the site called Cahuachi, in the Nazca valley, where there are a large pyramid and several other ceremonial structures. Work at Cahuachi has indicated that this site was probably an empty ceremonial center, a fact that seems to argue against a state-level society. It has been suggested that the site functioned as a ritual center where people came together periodically to celebrate religious festivals. The social organization may have been along the lines of a complex chiefdom controlled by priests in a pattern similar to that postulated for the organization of society during the Early Horizon (1000–500 bce). One of the problems in attempting to understand the organization of Nasca society is that it is known primarily from cemeteries. Almost no habitation sites with architecture have been preserved. As a result, it is very difficult to determine the function of many of the Nasca archaeological sites.
Nasca iconography varies from simple naturalistic designs to extremely varied and complex expressions of religious and mythical themes. The simpler designs often represent plants, such as beans, chili peppers, maize, and San Pedro cactus. Also shown are animals, including felines, various species of birds, many types of fish, and occasionally camelids. Humans are often depicted in scenes from daily life, including fishing, farming, and warfare. One of the most common representations is of human trophy heads taken from defeated enemies or sacrificial victims. Not only are the heads depicted on painted and modeled vessels, but a number of actual mummified heads have been recovered from offering caches. After decapitation the brains were removed and the mouth was fastened shut with thorns and yarn. A rope was then passed through a hole in the forehead to form a handle for carrying.
The more complex iconographic representations in Nasca art involve depictions of supernatural beings with the characteristics of humans, felines, serpents, birds, and killer whales. These creatures seem to be associated with trophy heads and perhaps warfare, as well as with plants and fertility. The elaborate representations with multiple discrete elements, including arms, legs, heads, eyes, and feline mouths, recall the complex kennings of Chavín art. Some of these creatures may represent a priest dressed in a costume identified with a deity. Regalia found in tombs suggest that priests costumed themselves as these mythical beings.
In addition to iconographic representations on ceramics and textiles, the Nasca created major works of art in the huge ground drawings found on the plain known as the Pampa de Nazca, which is adjacent to the Nazca valley. Here the mythical themes are reproduced in figures on a gigantic scale on the dry desert plain, together with geometric figures and hundreds of straight lines covering some 200 square miles. These were formed by scraping away the dark surface stones and gravel to reveal the lighter earth beneath. It has been proposed that the lines had astronomical significance referring to stars or planets, perhaps related to a calendrical system, but recent work has shown that very few of the lines are aligned with any celestial objects. Another explanation is that they may be ritual pathways relating to some specific religious celebration. It seems probable that there is some religious significance to the ground drawings since they include sacred iconography that also occurs on the ceramics.
Sources on the Nasca include Maria Reiche, Mystery on the Desert (1968); Tony Morrison, Pathways to the Gods: The Mystery of the Andes Lines (1978); Donald Proulx, "The Nasca Style," in Art of the Andes: Precolumbian Sculptured and Painted Ceramics from the Arthur M. Sackler Collections, edited by L. Katz (1983); Evan Hadingham, Lines to the Mountain Gods: Nazca and the Mysteries of Peru (1987); Helaine Silverman, "Cahuachi: Non-urban Cultural Complexity on the South Coast of Peru," in Journal of Field Archaeology 15, no. 4 (1988): 403-430, and "Beyond the Pampa: The Geoglyphs of the Valleys of Nazca," in National Geographic Research 6, no. 4 (1990): 435-456; Persis Clarkson, "The Archaeology of the Nazca Pampa, Peru: Environmental and Cultural Parameters," in The Lines of Nazca, edited by Anthony Aveni (1990); Helaine Silverman, "The Early Nasca Pilgrimage Center of Cahuachi and the Nazca Lines," in The Lines of Nazca, edited by Anthony Aveni (1990); Kroeber, A. L., Donald Collier, and Patrick H. Carmichael, The Archaeology and Pottery of Nazca, Peru: Alfred L. Kroeber's 1926 Expedition (1998). A more esoteric interpretation can be found in Däniken, Erich von, Arrival of the Gods: Revealing the Alien Landing Sites of Nazca (2002).
Gordon F. McEwan