The Mystery That's Stumped Experts for Decades: Peru's Nazca Lines


| LAST UPDATE 01/04/2023

By Amie Alfaro

Nestled in South America lay the Nazca Lines, which have baffled scientists for decades. But perhaps most importantly, people can't understand why they were made in the first place. Here's a look back at the ancient mystery.

Welcome to Nazca

Located 250 miles south of Lima, Peru, tourists are met with a remarkable site. For centuries, the area went untouched. Now, it is regarded as one of the greatest unsolved wonders of the world: the Nazca Lines.

Highway Sign Nazca PeruHighway Sign Nazca Peru
Pavel Špindler via Wikimedia Commons

The Nazca Lines are geoglyphs, works of art made by rearranging a landscape. Geoglyphs are typically made using stones or the earth to design lines that create figures on the ground. It just so happens that the Nazca Lines are the most famous geoglyphs in the world. But how did they come to be in the first place?

A Curious Discovery

A Peruvian archeologist was actually the first to study the lines in modern history. Toribio Mejia Xesspe was born to a family of farmers in Peru and moved to the capital, Lima, in 1920. He developed an interest in archaeology and studied under Dr. Julio C. Tello, who is considered the father of Peruvian archaeology.

Julio Tello Xesspe Peru ArchaeologyJulio Tello Xesspe Peru Archaeology
Wilmer queen via Wikimedia Commons

While he excavated and explored many areas of Peru, Xesspe made his most significant discovery in 1926 under the guidance of his mentor Julio C. Tello. He was stunned by the Nazca Lines and studied them in-depth. Despite his notable contribution, it wasn't until a mighty invention was made that their scope would truly be seen.

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The Invention of Aviation

While humans have always been fascinated with flight, it wasn't until two brothers in Ohio began experimenting that modern-day airplanes formed. In the early 1900s, Wilbur and Orville Wright invented the airplane. Before them, humankind created wings to mimic birds but could not stay in the air for stretches of time.

Wright Brothers First AirplaneWright Brothers First Airplane
Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons

With the Wright brothers' invention, the airplane soared - literally and figuratively. Improved engines and design allowed for longer flights. In 1927, Charles Lindbergh made history when he flew nonstop from New York City to Paris completely solo. But in the 1930s, the airplane continued to take the world by storm.

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Bird's Eye View

The invention of aviation allowed for new ways to explore the world. It didn't take long for air travel to become accessible. Airline companies were formed, and they offered a different mode of transportation. Now, passengers were able to fly by air. But with the invention of the airplane came a surprising discovery.

Nazca Lines Geoglyph MysteryNazca Lines Geoglyph Mystery
National Geographic via YouTube

Commercial flights that were soaring over the Peruvian coast saw something below them - the Nazca Lines! Xesspe had studied these lines on the ground, but he could not grasp the scope of what he had researched due to limitations from being on the land. Sure enough, the public was fascinated by these sightings.

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A Lost Civilization

This brings us to Paul Kosok. Born and raised in Long Island City, New York, in 1869, he began his career as an assistant professor at Long Island University. Kosok became particularly interested in the irrigation systems of ancient civilizations, a passion that would fuel him for years to come.

Ancient Wonder South America PeruAncient Wonder South America Peru
Yessica Herrada/EyeEm via Getty Images

In addition to his research and work as a professor, Kosok was also a dedicated musician who conducted the Brooklyn Philharmonic. It wasn't his music that would make a lasting impact, though. Life as he knew it changed forever when Kosok set off to Peru to study the irrigation systems of the ancient cultures that once existed there.

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Secrets in the Sun

Kosok's life's work was dedicated to irrigation systems of ancient civilizations. His studies brought him to the Nazca Lines to research if there was any relationship between these lines and possible irrigation techniques. Soon enough, he became one of the first scholars to study the lines in-depth.

Peruvian Desert Tourist AttractionPeruvian Desert Tourist Attraction
SL_Photography via Getty Images

Upon analyzing the lines, Kosok realized something: it seemed unlikely that they had anything to do with irrigation. According to National Geographic, a day after the winter solstice, Kosok was studying the lines at sunset. And that's when he saw it: the lines were in direct alignment with the sun. This couldn't be an accident - could it? 

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The Lady of the Lines

But he wasn't the only one stumped by the site: Maria Reiche was born in Germany in 1903 and held degrees in Mathematics, Astronomy, and Geography. And when she was a young woman, she, too, embarked on the journey of a lifetime. Reiche moved to Peru to become a governess and tutor for the German children at the consul in Cuzco.

Maria Reiche German Archaeologist Maria Reiche German Archaeologist
ITV/Shutterstock via Getty Images

She eventually became a teacher in Lima, settling into a job there. But when the Second World War broke out halfway across the world, Reiche decided to stay in South America. Somewhere along the way, Reiche met the American professor Paul Kosok - a friendship that would change her life.

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A Closer Look

On his second trip to the Nazca Lines, Kosok brought Maria Reiche with him. Together, the two made significant discoveries about the lines. With her brilliant skills in geography and mapping, the duo set out to map all of the Nazca Lines they found.

Peru Geoglyphs Aerial ViewPeru Geoglyphs Aerial View
SL_Photography via Getty Images

Reiche even convinced the Peruvian Air Force to assist with the research by providing aerial photographs of the region. They got to work documenting and analyzing everything that they could. However, in 1948, Kosok returned to the United States - except Reiche was not done just yet.

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The Mystery on the Desert

Maria Reiche stayed in Peru to continue the studies that she began with Kosok. She spent another 40 years studying the lines, earning herself the nickname Lady of the Lines. Later, she published her findings and theories about the geoglyphs in a book titled The Mystery on the Desert

Observation Tower Nazca LinesObservation Tower Nazca Lines
Unukorno via Wikimedia Commons

Reiche's love affair with the Nazca Lines continued up until her death. She spent much of her own money and efforts to protect the lines. Her house was in the desert, near the site, so she could prevent visitors from harming them. She also sponsored building a tower so visitors could see the geoglyphs without damaging them.

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Understanding the Different Lines

There had been so much fuss over these lines, but what even were they? Sure enough, the lines consisted of three main categories. There were simple, straight lines, artistic geometric designs, and figures or pictures that were created by the lines. But that's not all.

Spiral Geoglyph Peru Ancient MysterySpiral Geoglyph Peru Ancient Mystery
Helen via Getty Images

While the Nazca Lines are specific to those found in Peru, many other types of geoglyphs have been found elsewhere in the world. They have also been spotted in the south of Australia, the west of the United States, and other areas. So, what makes the Nazca Lines so captivating?

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The Nazcan People

The Nazca Lines were named after the people who were thought to have created them - the Nazcan people of ancient South America. They had an advanced civilization and rich culture. According to the British Museum, the Nazcan descended from the Paracas, who shared many of the same beliefs and DNA.

Clay Pot Nazcan ArtifactsClay Pot Nazcan Artifacts
Sean Pathasema/Birmingham Museum of Art via Wikimedia Commons

Water was an important part of their culture because of how vital it was for agriculture, lifestyle, and its symbolic meaning for their ancestors. Other aspects of their culture included pottery, music, and textiles. Sadly, it's believed that climate change and a cultural collapse led to their demise.

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How Were They Made?

Even if the Nazcan people no longer roam the coastlands of Peru, their impact remains forever with the Nazcan Lines they created all those centuries ago. But how did they even make them? Since they lived in an arid desert climate, they removed rocks to create distinct patterns in the ground.

Dog Geoglyph Nazca LinesDog Geoglyph Nazca Lines
CanY71 via Getty Images

The Nazcans removed an estimated 12 to 15 inches of rock layer to reveal the sand beneath. The most common method used by ancient civilizations was to remove the rocks to create outlines. However, there are some cases where they would remove stones from the interior to fill in the image instead of outlining it.

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Ahead of Their Time

The lines reach up to 30 miles and consist of anything from straight lines to depictions of various animals. Some of the animals represented in these geoglyphs include a hummingbird, llama, cactus, monkey, lizard, shark, and more. From what has been discovered thus far, there are about 70 animal and plant designs.

Monkey Geoglyph Nazca LinesMonkey Geoglyph Nazca Lines
Westend61 via Getty Images

In addition, there have been 300 geometric figures discovered. They include something as simple as triangles and rectangles to more complex designs like spirals and zig-zags. There are also 800 straight lines. These works of art are remarkable and extremely impressive for an ancient civilization - which brings us to another question…

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Ancient Builders

The Nazcan builders kept busy creating all the lines, but when exactly did they start this? Unfortunately, it's hard to pinpoint exactly when they were made. The Nazcan culture flourished between 1 and 700 AD, so they were most likely constructed during that time. Nonetheless, it is hard to know.

Nazca Lines Geoglyph Ancient MysteryNazca Lines Geoglyph Ancient Mystery
lovelypeace via Getty Images

However, according to History, some researchers believe that some of the designs predated the Nazcans and were made by the Chavin and Paracas cultures. There have also been clay pots discovered by the sites that date around 100 BCE to 300 CE. No matter when they were built or who was behind them, one major question remains. 

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The Big Question

There is one question that is on everyone's mind whenever they think about the Nazca Lines. Why? Why did an ancient civilization take the time and effort to create such complex yet beautiful works of art? Were they purely decorative, or did they serve a purpose? Was there a hidden meaning behind all these drawings in the desert?

Geoglyph Nazca Peru Unsolved MysteriesGeoglyph Nazca Peru Unsolved Mysteries
National Geographic via YouTube

Since they were discovered, researchers and the public have debated why these geoglyphs were made. There have been many theories throughout the years. Some are more widely accepted than others. However, without any clear answer, many of these theories remain today.

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The Kosok-Reiche Theory

When Paul Kosok and Maria Reiche researched the geoglyphs, they came up with the first theory of what these designs could be related to. They believed that the geoglyphs were connected with astronomy and the astrological calendar. Reiche believed that the figures in the dirt were related to the constellations in the sky.

Nazca Lines Alien UFO TheoryNazca Lines Alien UFO Theory
Glowimages via Getty Images

She thought that the lines were associated with where the stars were in the sky. For example, she believed that the geoglyph spider represented the constellation of Orion and the geoglyph monkey represented the Big Dipper. According to this theory, the geoglyphs are a calendar to help mark lunar and solar eclipses and the seasons.

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Poking Holes

Since Reiche and Kosok were the first to do extensive research on the area, their theory was widely accepted. That was until British astronomer Gerald Hawkins began to poke a few holes in the astrological theory. Hawkins went to Peru in 1967 and concluded that there was insufficient evidence to support this theory.

Nazca Lines Peruvian DesertNazca Lines Peruvian Desert
Nicholas Eagar via Getty Images

Hawkins had a pretty good resume, too. Only a few years earlier, in 1963, he published a paper about Stonehenge and was the first to make a correlation between the structure in the English countryside and a predictor for the movements of the sun and moon. There are still plenty of other theories surrounding the Nazca Lines...

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A Theory From Above

Jim Woodman had a different approach to his thinking. He believed that the only way that the Nazcans could have built the lines was by using a hot air balloon. He and others felt that the Nazcan society was advanced enough to have made hot air balloons that they would have used to assist them in constructing the geoglyphs.

Nazca Lines Aerial View TheoriesNazca Lines Aerial View Theories
SL_Photography via Getty Images

Atlas Obscura states, "Hot air balloonists argue that the Nazca were a technologically advanced society and point to their having built an impressive system of underground aqueducts, known as puquios, that still function today." While there is no evidence to support his theory, it is still an interesting one to ponder. 

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Proof of Alien Life?

But there are others who hold a most controversial view when it comes to the Nazca Lines. They believe that the lines are due to alien communication. Swiss archaeologist Erich von Daniken championed this theory, writing a book called Chariots of the Gods, which dove even deeper into his claim. 

Nazca Lines Geoglyph Conspiracy TheoryNazca Lines Geoglyph Conspiracy Theory
National Geographic via YouTube

According to Atlas Obscura, those who believe in this theory think that the lines were used by "ancient aliens who communicated with the ancient Peruvians and used the lines as navigational devices or even landing fields for some type of ancient astronaut."

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A Gift for the Gods

Similarly, American archaeologist Johan Reinhard suggested that the geoglyphs were made as offerings to the Nazcan's gods for water and help with crops. It makes complete sense that the Nazcans would want to pray and offer something up to their gods since they were living in the desert, and water was a scarce resource.

Geoglyph Spiral Nazca LinesGeoglyph Spiral Nazca Lines
Olena Lialina via Getty Images

Reinhard wrote in his book The Nasca Lines: A New Perspective on their Origin and Meanings, "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."

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The Most Probable Theory

The theory that the Nazca Lines are related to water rituals has become one of the most probable. Animal symbolism was prevalent then, and many symbols used were related to water. For example, the spider frequently represents rain, the hummingbird symbolizes fertility, and monkeys are associated with the Amazon.

Nazca Lines Peru Ancient WonderNazca Lines Peru Ancient Wonder
powerofforever via Getty Images

The geometric shapes also played a part. "The trapezoids are big wide spaces where people can come in and out," said anthropologist Anthony Aveni to National Geographic. He continued, "The rituals were likely involved with the ancient need to propitiate or pay a debt to the gods…probably to plead for water." 

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Connecting the Clues

But even more curious is everything researchers continue to discover at the Nazca Lines sites. They continue to unearth objects around the lines, like oyster shells and broken pieces of pottery. According to the Discovery UK program, Blowing Up History, these also have to do with the rituals performed at the geoglyphs. 

Archaeologist Discovery Nazca PeruArchaeologist Discovery Nazca Peru
Discovery UK via YouTube

The archaeologist in Blowing Up History believed that the fragmented pottery pieces were done on purpose based on how they were broken and that the oyster shells were used as another offering for rain. The program also stated that they found mounds near the sites that seem to have altars within them. The mystery continues...

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Recurring Symbols

Another curious discovery involves the broken ceramic pieces surrounding the geoglyphs. The designs on them included whales, crustaceans, orcas, monkeys, and more. These symbols were often repeated throughout ancient Peruvian cultures to represent water, rain, and the like.

Clay Pottery Artifact Ancient Civilization Clay Pottery Artifact Ancient Civilization
Discovery UK via YouTube

"Some scholars point to the animal depictions—some of which are symbols for rain, water or fertility and have been found at other ancient Peruvian sites and on pottery—as evidence of this theory," stated History. These recurring symbols are yet another clue to unraveling the mystery.

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World Heritage Site

Maria Reiche spent her entire life dedicated to the geoglyphs. She worked tirelessly and endlessly to have them protected and recognized globally. Her work paid off when in 1994, UNESCO added the Nazca Lines to its World Heritage List. This designation was a big win for Reiche and archaeologists around the world.

Geoglyph Nazca Lines UNSECO SiteGeoglyph Nazca Lines UNSECO Site
National Geographic via YouTube

As for what this meant? The site would now be more protected so that future generations could enjoy and continue to study the famous geoglyphs. Peru's renowned ritual site, Machu Picchu, is also on UNESCO's World Heritage List. The Nazca Lines designation came four years before Maria Reiche passed away in 1998.

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A Strategic Location

Thankfully, the Nazca Lines are now protected under the UNESCO World Heritage List. But how did they survive all these years before that? For an estimated 500 to 2,000 years, the lines went untouched and unknown to the world. Archaeologists can thank the environment they were created in for their preservation.

UNSECO World Heritage Sites PeruUNSECO World Heritage Sites Peru
Marc Guitard via Getty Images

The Nazca Lines are located in the desert. This allowed the geoglyphs to be created in the first place because of the rock and sand layers. Plus, it helped with their preservation. Since few weather elements, like rain, wind, and erosion, interfere with the area, the designs could remain as they were created all these years ago.

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Difficulties Ahead

Despite lasting for years completely unknown and being on the UNESCO World Heritage List, there are still many difficulties that the Nazca Lines face with conservation, unfortunately. In 2009, the geoglyphs suffered damage due to heavy rainfall that flowed from the Pan-American Highway.

Green Peace PR Stunt Nazca PeruGreen Peace PR Stunt Nazca Peru
Rodrigo Abd/AP via Shutterstock

When Green Peace performed a media stunt to promote renewable energy, they trekked on the ground without proper gear and damaged the famous hummingbird geoglyph. There was also an instance where a driver trekked on a portion of the Lines. The fight to conserve these ancient works of art continues to this very day.

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More To Uncover

To this day, there is still so much to uncover about the mysteries of the Nazca Lines and the geoglyphs themselves. Archaeologist Luis Jaime Castillo told The Guardian in 2020, "We've registered maybe just 5% of what there is." Archaeologists continue to work day in and day out to discover what else is out there. 

Archaeologist Nazca Lines PeruArchaeologist Nazca Lines Peru
Sergio Urday/EPA via Shutterstock

The fact that archaeologists keep studying the area means they believe many areas are still left to discover. What else could be hiding in plain sight? Could there be more clues to the meaning behind these enormous works of art? Luckily, archaeologists have some help nowadays.

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The Power of Technology

Unlike Toribio Mejia Xesspe, who could only walk along the Lines, or Maria Reiche, who could only use the aid of airplanes, archaeologists studying the Nazca Lines today have advanced technology on their side. Just like the invention of airplanes helped to see the geoglyphs, AI and drones have helped to find more geoglyphs.

Aerial Shot Nazca Lines PeruAerial Shot Nazca Lines Peru
Westend61 via Getty Images

It has become increasingly harder to spot the geoglyphs due to natural factors like erosion and time. Also, many of the artworks were dug into flat surfaces, making them challenging to see. With advanced technologies, archaeologists can use drone footage and artificial intelligence to gather information faster than ever before.

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1,000+ Lines & Counting...

This brings us to today - the moment a group of archaeologists made a trivial discovery. With the help of modern-day technology, they found 168 new geoglyphs. Researchers from Yamagata University had been working in the area for over a year, surveying the land and using drones to help take aerial photographs.

New Geoglyph Nazca Lines DiscoveryNew Geoglyph Nazca Lines Discovery
SpacialistHan via Getty Images

Back in 1994, when the Lines became part of the World Heritage List, there were only 30 that had been discovered. Fast-forward to today, and there are over 1,000 lines that have been uncovered, according to National Geographic. The archaeologists' findings are even more critical as mining-related activities surrounding the sites threaten them.

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The Mystery Remains

The Nazca Lines have remained a mystery since their discovery almost 100 years ago. Even as researchers dedicate their lives to finding more clues, the riddles remain. What was their purpose? How did the Nazcan people accomplish such an incredible task? There are still so many unanswered questions that remain.

Human Geoglyph Nazca Lines MysteryHuman Geoglyph Nazca Lines Mystery
GIACOMO MORINI via Getty Images

Whether it was aliens or water-related rituals, the Nazca Lines fascinate the world. They are complex and extraordinary works of ancient art that have dazzled the imaginations of many. The world may never know what their true purpose was, but that won't stop archaeologists from continuing to scout out more...

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