“I can’t look down, I’m terrified,” said Caro, fervently gripping the armrest in the small Cessna aircraft as we flew over the Nazca Lines in southern Peru.
Like a rusty old roller coaster, the slow-moving plane rattled and shook, and we felt every slight change in altitude. I nervously chuckled at my future wife’s comment knowing her fear was not altogether unfounded. Two major accidents involving Cessna planes occurred the year before our 2011 flight: A failed emergency landing in October took all six lives on board (including the drink-friendly pilot), while a February crash took seven lives. In between those two tragedies, drug cartel members apparently posed as tourists hijacking a plane that disappeared into the jungle. Being that I really wanted to see the Nazca Lines, I maybe kinda-sorta forgot to mention all that to her.
“I’m not really seeing the patterns,” I replied, trying to change the topic. “I don’t see any animals.”
The Nazca Lines (sometimes Nasca) are a collection of geometrical patterns, or geoglyphs, etched into stone surfaces under the desert sand thousands of years ago. The geoglyphs include various geometric forms like triangles, spirals and trapezoids as well as intricately designed fauna such as a spider, condor, monkey and lizard. The latter, which are technically called biomorphs, are largely grouped together, and archaeologists believe they were made around 200 BCE with most of the geoglyphs coming later. Researchers continue to find new markings—like a 200-foot-long snake discovered in 2014—as wind continues to shift the sand. With some geoglyphs reaching 1,000 feet in size, the Nazca Lines were not fully discovered until the arrival of air travel in Peru about 90 years ago.
As I looked out the window failing to see the first animal image, I felt like someone staring for hours at a 3D poster whose design never seems to pop, but I did catch the second one.
“Look, over there,” I said pointing out the window. “It’s a bird.”
Caro tepidly leaned over.
“Yes, I see it, too,” she said, now distracted from her fears. “That’s amazing.”
We were given a sheet that listed what images to look for and in what order. Once we could make out the 165-foot hummingbird, we had a better idea of how to make the patterns out. The next image, though, sent chills up our spines.
“Do you see that?” I asked.
“I do,” Caro said. “What do they call that?”
I looked down at the sheet and read, “An astronaut.”
“Why would they draw an astronaut thousands of years ago?” Caro replied.
With a strangely shaped head and giant round eyes, the 130-foot-tall geoglyph etched into the hillside looked like a freakin’ alien waving at the plane. In our minds, this immediately added another twist to how these giant patterns appeared in the sand without any modern instrumentation.
UNESCO, which bestowed World Heritage honors on the site in 1994, described the works as follows: “These lines, which were scratched on the surface of the ground between 500 B.C. and A.D. 500, are among archaeology’s greatest enigmas because of their quantity, nature, size and continuity. The geoglyphs depict living creatures, stylized plants and imaginary beings, as well as geometric figures several kilometres long. They are believed to have had ritual astronomical functions.”
Some believed the lines represent constellations in the sky above, but in the 1960s, others argued that the Nazca Lines were created by—or in cooperation with—aliens who had contact with the Nazca people.
In his bestselling 1968 book Chariots of the Gods?, Swiss author Erich von Daniken argued that the constructions, which required technical skill unavailable to the Nazca, might have been runways and markers for extraterrestrial spaceships. Von Daniken’s theories became popular enough to warrant the Rod Serling-hosted documentary In Search of Ancient Astronauts on NBC and the film Chariots of the Gods. In more recent years, his theories popped up in shows like The X-Files and films like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull where Indy visits the “lines only the Gods can read.”
In 2013, the television series Ancient Aliens also argued, “Looking at Nazca from the air, it looks like an airport. It really does, because you have all these bands, wide bands, that look like airstrips that are layered on top of each other, but you also have these gigantic, long straight lines that go for miles and miles over valleys; over mountains.”
Just as believers in the Christian heaven should know that gold is a soft metal that’s horrible for paving streets, the 1995 book Fingerprints of the Gods argued that the soft rock of the Nazca plateau is less than ideal for bearing the weight of heavy extraterrestrial vehicles. That said, our minds immediately went to aliens when we saw the Astronauts.
“That looks like an alien!” I said.
The co-pilot turned and nodded with a goofy smile.
Aliens are not, however, the only far-out theory about the lines. Some suggest they are connected to human sacrifice.
“Images of disembodied heads and decapitation were ubiquitous in the art of the Nasca culture, and the large numbers of physical remains of trophy heads found in the archaeological record of the area are unprecedented,” said a study published in Current Anthropology in 2007. “Human sacrifice and decapitation were part of powerful rituals that would have allayed fears by invoking the ancestors to ensure fertility and the continuation of Nasca society.”
Adding some credence to this theory, a Japanese team in 2011 announced the discovery of a new geoglyph that resembled a human head.
After seeing the Astronaut, we were more determined than ever to see more geoglyphs, and they came in rapid succession during the 30-minute flight. We marveled at the 360-foot-long monkey with the spiral tail, the absolutely gorgeous 450-foot-long condor and the creepy 150-foot-tall spider. The plane visited more than a dozen different geoglyphs, and the size and scope made it hard to imagine how an ancient civilization might have crafted such works. Keep in mind, the Nazca created these geoglyphs over centuries, so it wasn’t like they had their own Frank Stella banging these out in a single lifetime.
After viewing the last image, the Cessna headed back to the small dusty airfield, and the plane shook its way to a somewhat rough landing. Judging by her hand movements during the descent, Caro had suddenly become Catholic again.
So, if the Nazca Lines were not an alien hotline or airfield, what were they? In his 1985 book The Nasca Lines: A New Perspective on their Origin and Meanings, author Johan Reinhard wrote, “It seems likely that most of the lines did not point at anything on the geographical or celestial horizon, but rather led to places where rituals were performed to obtain water and fertility of crops.”
Making a similar argument, Between the Lines author Anthony Aveni told National Geographic, “Our discoveries clearly showed that the straight lines and trapezoids are related to water… but not used to find water, but rather used in connection with rituals…. The trapezoids are big wide spaces where people can come in and out. The rituals were likely involved with the ancient need to propitiate or pay a debt to the gods… probably to plead for water.”
In 2000, a team of University of Massachusett scientists posited a new theory that the designs marked underground water sources in this thirsty plain that typically sees only one inch of rainfall per year. Stephen B. Mabee, a hydrogeologist on the team, argued, “Ancient inhabitants may have marked the location of their groundwater supply distribution system with geoglyphs because the springs and seeps associated with the faults provided a more reliable and, in some instances, a better-quality water source than the rivers.”
All of these theories have their doubters, but most researchers believe the Nazca Lines in some way involve water and rituals, the specifics of which are still being explored.
Still, our favorite Nazca observation comes from the site Ancient Aliens Debunked, which wrote, “If you asked an ancient Nazcan what they believed about the world and how it worked, they would likely say something like: ‘We take hallucinogenic drugs; we cut off a lot of heads, all in hopes that the monkey spirit will help us have some good crops this year.’”
In the end, it might just be as simple as that.