If you believe that every dark cloud has a silver lining, this story is for you. In late 2014, environmental protesters trying to get the attention of attendees at a conference in Peru on climate change placed plastic letters on the ground in the Nazca desert to spell out their message and accidentally damaged the famous set of Nazca lines that form a hummingbird. While scanning the area with drones to assess the damage, archeologists were stunned to find 50 new lines that could not be seen by satellite nor on the ground because the lines were extremely fine or faint. Even more exciting … and puzzling … the new lines form strange shapes that predate the Nazca culture they were named for. Who made them and are there any more?
The Nazca lines and Nazca Desert in southern Peru are named for the Nazca culture which populated the area from 100 BCE to 800 CE. The lines are large (up to 370 meters/1200 feet long) ancient geoglyphs depicting animals, humans and geometric shapes, and speculation on their purpose runs the gamut from messages to the gods to maps for alien visitors to directional signs for traders and religious pilgrims to spiritual structures like Stonehenge. Whatever they are, they’ve always been attributed to the Nazcas. That may change with these new discoveries.
“This means that it is a tradition of over a thousand years that precedes the famous geoglyphs of the Nasca culture, which opens the door to new hypotheses about its function and meaning.”
In an interview with National Geographic, Peruvian Ministry of Culture archaeologist Johny Isla described the importance of these new lines (photos here and here). In the same article, Peruvian archaeologist and lines co-discoverer Luis Jaime Castillo Butters points out the differences in these new lines and why they haven’t been spotted before.
“Most of these figures are warriors. These ones could be spotted from a certain distance, so people had seen them, but over time, they were completely erased.”
While the Nazcas drew mostly animals, birds and geometric shapes, these human figures were created by members of the Paracas culture which lived in the area before the Nazcas between 800 BCE and 100 BCE. Until now, the Paracas were best known for their shaft tombs, which are vertical grave sites for multiple burials that were reused and the heads were often taken out, used in rituals and returned to the shafts. The lines of the Paracas culture appear to have been carved into the ground, often on hillsides so they might have been seen by people in the towns. That explains why they’re now so faint, while the Nazca lines, which were created by digging down to lighter colored dirt and protected with stones, are still very visible from the earth and from space.
Of course, those stones and the hard work of Peru’s government and preservationists can’t protect the lines from today’s humans, whether they be protesters, truck drivers cutting around toll booths or unscrupulous developers with illegal contracts. Luis Jaime Castillo Butters describes the problems he and fellow archeologists face:
“We’re not fighting a looter with his shovel, running away when you’re blowing a whistle; we’re fighting an army of lawyers. This is a constant battle, so the work we’re doing — documenting the sites, geo-referencing — is the best protection we can give the sites.”
This is yet another reason why we can’t have nice things.