The famous Nazca Lines in the Nazca desert of southern Peru have a number of mysteries … not the least of which is the mystery of who made them. And why. And what exactly are the drawings supposed to represent? That last mystery may have been partially answered in a new study by a group of ornithologists who focused on the sixteen giant geoglyphs that look like birds. They believe they’ve identified the species and where they come from and, most importantly, why they became the subjects of these mysterious glyphs.
Concentrating on just the Nazca birds makes sense because they account for the largest number of the geoglyphs that depict plants and animals. Researchers from the Hokkaido University Museum, the Yamashina Institute for Ornithology and Yamagata University agree, especially since no one has really identified them beyond general descriptions. In a press release announcing the publication of their study in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, Masaki Eda of The Hokkaido University Museum described their process of analysis:
“Until now, the birds in these drawings have been identified based on general impressions or a few morphological traits present in each figure. We closely noted the shapes and relative sizes of the birds’ beaks, heads, necks, bodies, wings, tails and feet and compared them with those of modern birds in Peru.”
As a result, the team determined that a shape previously thought to be a hummingbird is actually a depiction of a hermit – a dull-colored hummingbird cousin in the same family (Trochilidae). Two other birds – one a mystery and the other thought to be a guano bird (seabirds that create massive amounts of … you can figure it out) – are actually pelicans. Another strange bird that has defied identification was determined to be a baby parrot. The team could neither confirm nor deny other bird drawing thought to depict condors and flamingos so they stuck with those identities. Eda points out that the fact that these drawings come close to what the real birds look like is amazing considering their size and the lack of technology the artists had.
“The Nasca people who drew the images could have seen pelicans while food-gathering on the coast. Our findings show that they drew exotic birds, not local birds, and this could be a clue as to why they drew them in the first place.”
Identifying the birds led to the real “Aha!” discovery – these were not local desert birds. Pelicans are coastal birds, guano birds live on islands, and hermits and parrots live in the rain forest. The Nazca people may have seen them on food-gathering excursions. This implies that they were special to the Nazca culture in some way. But how?
“The amount of rainfall in the highlands was estimated by observing the migrations of seabirds. When seabirds migrate to mountainous regions of the Nazca pampas during November and December, it is expected that rain will fall in the highlands. On the other hand, if migrating seabirds are not observed, water shortages are feared.”
Some things never change. These ancient Peruvians were constantly concerned about the weather and especially rain and believed the birds brought water from the ocean and the rainforests. The drawings may have been drawn to honor or worship the birds, thank them for their gifts and perhaps even be a big welcoming sign letting them know where to stop the next time.
Eda and the ornithologists plan to analyze bird drawings on pottery and bird remains from Nazca ruins to further identify the bird drawings.
What about the other strange creatures in the Nazca lines like the monkey, the whale, the spider and the dog? What species are they and why were they drawn? More studies of this type are obviously needed. Can they be protected from destruction until that happens?
One thing you can say about the Nazca lines – they’re great job creators.