Nasca Lines, geoglyphs, or very large, desert ground drawings that are visible from hilltops or in aerial photographs. Among the best preserved in the Andean area, the lines are situated in the Río Grande de Nazca drainage area on the south coast of Peru. They include figures of living plant and animal forms (a bird, fish, monkey, flower, and killer whale, for example); geometric and abstract figures, such as trapezoids, rectangles, spirals, and concentric ray systems; and straight lines, which far outnumber the other two types. Ground markings are also found in different parts of the central Andes, such as the Santa and Casma River valleys in Peru, in Bolivia, and in northern Chile. Many of the Nasca geoglyphs date to the Nasca culture.
There is general consensus regarding how the lines were made. The producers relied upon both subtractive and additive methods. The first involved the removal of the small black and angular desert pebbles and topsoil to reveal a light-colored, coarse, sandy subsurface. In the additive approach, rocks and cobbles were collected from the immediate vicinity to shape circular stone piles that are evenly spaced across uncultivated sand flats, or they appear as lines with evenly spaced single stones or as cairns.
From the time of their discovery by Alfred Kroeber in 1926 and for the following fifty years, the prevailing interpretation was that the lines held astronomical and calendrical significance. Torribio Mejía Xesspe initially suggested (1940) that the lines may have been used as ceremonial paths or roads. But it was Paul Kosok (1965) who actually recorded the desert markings through aerial photography and who believed that the ground drawings were aligned with astronomically important points on the horizon. This theory was supported by the research of a German mathematician, Maria Reiche (1974), who has spent her life studying, measuring, and protecting the ground drawings.
Rituals that involve the use of the geoglyphs as ceremonial pathways remain the common thread that unites most studies concerned with explaining the creation of the Nasca lines. Recent studies have discredited the astronomical alignment theory and have revealed that the lines, particularly those with concentric ray clusters, indicate a strong correlation with points where water is available.
Ceramics that are found with the figural ground drawings can be dated through correspondence with Nasca ceramic styles of the Nasca culture that flourished during the Early Intermediate Period (c. 200 bce–ce 600). Disagreement concerning the chronology of the lines and other geometric forms persists. Some believe the lines to be of a later date because they often cross over life-form figures. More recent dates are based on the analysis of desert varnish, the natural dark coating that has accumulated on the surface of stones on the Nasca lines over time. Dates provided by this method indicate line production occurred between 193 bce and ce 648.
Torribio Mejía Xesspe, "Acueductos y caminos antiguos de la hoya del Río Grande de Nasca," in Actas y trabajos cientifícos del XXVII Congreso, International Congress of Americanists, vol. 1 (1939): 559-569.
John Howland Rowe, "Alfred Louis Kroeber, 1876–1960," in American Antiquity 27, no. 3 (1962): 395-415.
Paul Kosok, Life, Land, and Water in Ancient Peru (1965).
Maria Reiche, Peruvian Ground Drawings (1974).
R. I. Dorn and T. M. Oberlander, "Microbial Origin of Desert Varnish," in Science 213 (1981): 1245-1247.
Johan Reinhard, The Nazca Lines: A New Perspective on Their Origin and Meaning, 4th ed. (1988).
Anthony F. Aveni, ed., The Lines of Nazca (1990).
Helaine Silverman, "Beyond the Pampa: The Geoglyphs in the Valleys of Nazca," in National Geographic Research 6, no. 4 (1990): 435-456; "Estudio de los patrones de asentamiento y reconstrucción de la antigua sociedad Nasca," in Boletín de Lima 82 (1992): 33-44.