Reiche, Maria (1903–1998)

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Reiche, Maria (1903–1998)

German mathematician and guardian of Peru's Nazca Lines petroglyphs. Born on May 15, 1903, in Dresden, Germany; died of cancer on June 8, 1998, in Lima, Peru; graduated from a local university in Dresden, 1928; studied with Long Island University scholar Paul Kosok.

Left Germany for Peru (1932); first visited Nazca lines with mentor Kosok (1941); began scientific work in Nazca desert, living most of the time in a small hut there (1946); awarded Peruvian government's highest honor, the Order of the Sun (1993); became Peruvian citizen (1994).

In 1932, Maria Reiche left her native Germany with a mathematics degree and the ability to speak five languages, to become a tutor in Peru. While working as a translator in Lima a few years later, Reiche met Paul Kosok, an American scholar who had come to Peru to investigate recently discovered enormous shallow lines etched into the Peruvian desert floor about 250 miles south of Lima. In 1941, Reiche's life changed when Kosok took her to see the ancient lines near the small town of Nazca. That year, at sunset on June 22, Kosok was standing near one of the long straight lines when he noticed that its direction led straight into the setting sun. He surmised that the line was meant to denote the winter solstice. When six months later Reiche observed another line pointing toward the summer solstice mark, they theorized that the lines might be a celestial calendar more than 1,000 years old.

In 1946, the solitary and feisty Reiche, completely captivated by the mysterious lines, began living in the desert for weeks on end while she cleaned and studied them. When Kosok mapped a convoluted line and found it to be the image of a bird, Reiche's fascination intensified. In 1948, Kosok left Peru. Reiche took over his work and shortly thereafter discovered and mapped 18 more animal images. She spent the next 50 years dwelling in a small house near the puzzling drawings, measuring, charting, studying and protecting them. She theorized and wrote about their significance to the ancient Nazcans, who had scraped the images—which can only be recognized from the air—into the timeless plain. Calling the designs "a very fragile manuscript," Reiche paid guards with her own money to patrol them.

Although residents of Nazca initially thought Reiche was "crazy," in time they appreciated her for bringing needed tourist revenue into their town. After the modern discovery of the lines, and Reiche's work, the huge, fragile images became Peru's second biggest tourist attraction, after Machu Picchu. Over the five decades of her labor, Peruvians came to honor Maria Reiche as a national treasure. They commemorated her birthday every year, and in 1993 presented her with their highest national award, the Order of the Sun. "The Lady of the Lines," as she was known, who became a Peruvian citizen in 1994, tirelessly fought all manner of threats to the lines, largely alone. Even in her elderly years she chased away trespassers in her wheelchair. In 1995, UNESCO designated the Nazca Lines a world heritage site. Yet after Reiche's death in 1998 at age 95, Peruvians still wondered who would carry on her dedication to preserving them and unraveling their secrets.

sources:

Thomas, Robert McG., Jr. "Maria Reiche, 95, Keeper of an Ancient Peruvian Puzzle, Dies," in The New York Times. June 15, 1998, p. A21.

Jacquie Maurice , freelance writer, Calgary, Alberta, Canada