The Unsolved Mystery of Peru’s Ancient Nazca Lines

First discovered in 1927, the Nazca Lines were found in Peru, 200 miles south of Lima. The geoglyphs made in the soil of the Nazca Desert have remained a mystery for thousands of years, with people creating several theories about their origin. Were they made by ancient civilizations or extraterrestrial beings?

The Nazca Lines in Peru
Source: Getty Images

When viewed from the air or higher ground, the lines form drawings of figures, animals, and plants that cover 170 square miles. Archeologists have studied these ancient formations for years but still don’t know why they exist. The Nazca Lines might remain one of the world’s greatest mysteries.

Lines in the Sand

The first mention of the Nazca Lines occurred in the 1500s. Travelers stumbled upon them and thought they were trail markers or remnants of roads. The lines were partially visible from nearby higher grounds, but the first official reports about them weren’t published until the 20th century.

The Nazca Lines depicing a bird.
Photo by Luca Picciau/REDA&CO/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Peruvian archeologist Toribio Mejia Xesspe spotted the lines while hiking through the nearby foothills in 1927. He spoke about them at a conference in Lima over a decade later. However, he couldn’t make sense of these strange lines that didn’t serve any apparent purpose. In 1940, someone else saw them from the air.

An Accidental Discovery

While in Peru to study ancient irrigation systems, American historian Paul Kosok noticed the lines as he flew over them. He realized one was shaped like a bird, causing him to wonder what they were. Another observation revealed that the lines converged at the winter solstice in the southern hemisphere.

Paul Kosok and Maria Reiche are exploring the desert.
Source: Facebook

Kosok was mystified by the lines and began studying their possible origins. He was also curious about their purpose. Word started to spread in the archeological community about Kosok’s studies, so Richard Schaedel and Maria Reiche joined him on his quest to uncover the mystery of the Nazca Lines.

They Had Theories

The three quickly came up with ideas about the purpose of the lines. They proposed that the figures were created to be astronomical markers on the horizon to indicate where the sun and other celestial bodies rose on specific dates. They believed it was like an enormous calendar for the ancient people.

Reiche is explaining the Nazca Lines.
Source: YouTube

However Kosok, Schaedel, and Reiche were not sure about their theory. It seemed probable, but later proposals undermined their original thoughts. Interestingly, it was easier for people to discover how the Nazca Lines were made instead of why they were created, which remains a mystery all these years later.

Paranormal Conspiracies

Because the lines create such massive figures, with the largest being 400 yards long, it’s easy to see why extraterrestrial theories have been popular. Some didn’t believe the ancient Nazca people, who were indigenous to the area over 2,000 years ago, could create the designs without help or technology.

Depictions of the various Nazca Lines.
Source: Tumblr

Therefore, aliens were a popular theory because some figures are only fully visible from the sky. Others theorized that the Nazca people dug the lines with instructions from extraterrestrial beings, possibly to create a runway for UFOs or to attract aliens with pictures big enough to see from space.

Unusual Figures

Those who believed in the alien theory backed up their claims by pointing out the more unusual drawings. Some etchings depicted birds or plants, but a popular figure was nicknamed “the astronaut,” a human shape with a round head like someone in a spacesuit.

Nazca Lines that look like an austronaut.
Source: Diego Delso/CC BY-SA 4.0/Wikimedia Commons

Swiss author Erich von Daniken believed some of the figures were aliens. He spread this idea by discussing it in his 1968 book Chariots of the Gods. Von Daniken’s theory quickly became popular with conspiracy theorists. It also made the Nazca Lines well-known worldwide.

The “Ancient Astronauts”

Von Daniken described the mysterious lines as landing sites for extraterrestrial aircrafts. He theorized that the shapes reflected visits by astronauts from other planets who created ancient civilizations. Von Daniken said Sanskrit literature describes a story of an aircraft landing on Earth.

Von Daniken takes part in an interview.
Source: YouTube

The story claims that local people watched in wonder as “human-like beings with golden, shimmering skin” mined for metals and flew away. Then, generations of ancient people built more “runways,” hoping the golden people would return, but they never did.

The Nazca Bodies

The discovery of Nazca bodies close to the lines further fueled the alien theories. The Nazca people lived in the valleys of the Rio Grande de Nasca river between 100 BC and 800 AD. They practiced mummification, and archeologists discovered their well-preserved bodies in unusual conditions.

Mummified alian figures that were uncovered in Peru.
Source: YouTube

Some of the bodies had elongated skulls, and one corpse only had three fingers. The three-fingered mummy made people think it wasn’t a human’s remains. However, there were explanations behind the unnatural remains that shut down the outlandish conspiracy theories.

They Had Strange Rituals

Archeologists explained the strange skulls and the three-fingered mummy. They said the mummy was likely a hoax created by thieves who raided one of the Nazca burial sites. As for the elongated skulls, this was a ritual practiced by many ancient groups.

The Mummified remins found in Peru.

The Nazca people performed artificial cranial deformation, a ritual that binds the pliable skulls of infants to create an altered skull shape. This practice is thought to have been used to signify social status within groups or as an in-group indicator. Researchers said it didn’t affect their health or brain function.

She Shut Down His Theory

Von Daniken was known for being a strong believer in extraterrestrial beings and published his beliefs about their involvement in the Egyptian pyramids, Stonehenge, and Easter Island. After he published his book, Maria Reiche declared his ideas were ridiculous and should be ignored.

Von Danikentalks about the connection to ancient Egypt.
Source: YouTube

Von Daniken wasn’t the first to publish ideas about aliens contacting ancient people, but he didn’t credit these authors in his work. Although his book drew thousands of visitors and conspiracy theorists to the Nazca Lines, his theories were disproven by several scholars and archeologists.

Simple Creations

Scholars theorized that the Nazca people used simple tools to dig the large lines. Archeologists also found wooden stakes at the end of some lines, supporting these theories. One of the stakes was carbon-dated to determine when the designs were made.

 The spider of the Nazca Lines.
Source: Diego Delso/CC BY-SA 4.0/Wikimedia Commons

The creation of the lines was proven to be quite simple. Joe Nickell, an American investigator of artifacts, recreated how the lines were made in the early 2000s. He reproduced the figures using the same tools available to the Nazca people at the time.

He Recreated It

Nickell demonstrated how the Nazca raked the top layer of the soil, which was a deep red, to reveal the light-yellow sand beneath it. The difference in the colors made the line visible from far away. His recreation was noted as “remarkable in its exactness.”

Joe Nickell stands in the middle of his own Nazca spider recreation.
Source: Facebook

He also proved that a small team of people could create even the largest of the figures within a few days without aerial assistance. In doing so, he disproved von Daniken’s theory, which was pretty unbelievable in the first place.

They Didn’t Need Planes

While the lines were easy to make, many wondered how they created such massive figures without being able to see them from above. Nickell was also able to explain this through his recreation. With some simple planning, the Nazca could have directed their operations from the nearby hills.

Tourists fly in a small plane over the Nazca Lines of Peru.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

They obviously didn’t have planes or advanced technology in ancient times, so they used whatever nature provided. However, the Nazca Lines are best viewed from a plane window because you can see the full figures and marvel at how massive they are.

Nature Preserved Them

Although the Nazca lines were created by raking back a shallow layer of soil, they have remained visible for centuries. Their longevity is due to the nearly weatherless plains where they were carved. The Nazca Desert has few winds to disturb its soil.

The dog, geoglyph, Nazca Lines
Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images

The region gets a maximum of four millimeters of rain annually, so water hasn’t ruined the lines either. As a result, the Nazca Lines were nearly untouched for thousands of years. The lines stood the test of time even though they were made of dirt.

Interesting Proportions

In von Daniken’s book, he claimed the drawings were of ancient astronauts (aliens). But the figure called the “astronaut” is also referred to as the giant. In reality, the Nazca most likely portrayed their images of people with distorted proportions.

Aerial view of the
Source: Diego Delso/CC BY-SA 4.0/Wikimedia Commons

They enlarged some body parts like the head and shrank others. Their drawings of animals also deviated from reality. For example, the hummingbird figure had an extra-long beak, and the monkey had an extremely curled tail. None of them are realistic depictions.

The Biggest Mystery

Though archeologists discovered how the lines were created, the mystery remains about why the Nazca carved them. Kosok and his team thought they were markers of important dates, like a giant calendar, and others thought they represented constellations. But those theories have been doubted.

Kosok and Reiche explore the desert.
Source: Imgur

In recent years, Kosok’s theory was challenged because most of the lines aren’t connected to celestial events. National Geographic’s Johan Reinhard believes the lines were markers of religious ritual sites, especially those positioned around water, because water was scarce in the dry climate.

Rituals for Water

Reinhard theorized the lines and figures were part of religious rituals to worship idols associated with water. He believed the lines were paths where the people could go to worship the gods so they would provide the people with water for their crops.

Johan filming on summit of Llullaillaco volcano.
Source: Johan Reinhard/CC BY-SA 3.0/Wikimedia Commons

However, this theory also remains unsolved because there is no way to know the meaning of each figure. There have been many theories like Reinhard’s, and researchers only recently uncovered possible evidence to support such ideas. David Johnson said the figures followed the paths of rocks that held groundwater.

A Possible Explanation

Many researchers have spent years trying to determine the purpose of the Nazca Lines, and a team from Italy found evidence to support the water theories. Rosa Lasaponara and her team uncovered evidence that suggests spiral holes dug near the lines were part of a water distribution system.

Entrance to Nazca aqueduct called Puquios.
Source: Ab5602/Public domain/Wikimedia Commons

Their findings could mean that the lines were linked to a huge water movement project. The area is one of the driest on the planet, and the spiraled holes (known as puquios) could have provided the ancient people with water year-round.

New Discoveries

Although the lines are thousands of years old, researchers discovered 143 new figures in the Nazca Desert in 2019. The discovery adds to more than 1,000 ancient drawings already discovered in the area. The Nazca Lines consist of 800 straight lines and over 300 geometric shapes.

New Nazca Lines that have been discovered.
Source: Facebook

Archeologists also found warriors and other figures carved into the hillsides in the nearby province of Palpa. Another group of ancient people could have followed the same practices as the Nazca. Researchers also separated the figures into two groups, created in different periods.

He Might Have Been Right

The two groups of figures were separated into those that seemed ritualistic, shaped like animals and plants, and those created near paths or on inclines thought to be travel markers. If some lines were used as travel markers, Pedro Cieza de Leon’s description of the lines in 1553 was correct.

A view of the Parrot Nazca Lines.
Photo by Luis Rosendo/Heritage Images/Getty Images

However, like all of the Nazca Lines, researchers are still unsure what they mean. Whether they were created as travel markers or for spiritual purposes, this mystery may never be solved. And the lines might disappear before they figure it out.

Threats to the Lines

The Nazca Lines are considered part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site but can’t be fully protected. Conservationists are worried that pollution and erosion will ruin the lines. The lines could be washed away if the region suddenly gets heavy rain due to global weather changes.

The ‘spaceman’ design, part of the ancient and mysterious Nazca Lines in the Nazca Desert.
Photo by Jim Dyson/Getty Images

The region dealt with flooding and mudslides in 2007, which didn’t affect the lines. However, it showed how fragile the figures are. The paths are only about four to 12 inches deep, so it wouldn’t take much for water to destroy them.

Too Close to the Lines

In 2012, settlers started building shacks along the border of the Nazca Lines. They also started raising pigs which threatened to destroy some of the lines. The pig corals broke bits of Nazca ceramics. Jesus Arias, head of the settlement, denies his community hurt the area.

The sun sets over the Nazca Lies.
Photo by Giovanni Mereghetti/UCG/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Arias said the culture ministry should have done a better job marking the boundaries of protected areas. Unfortunately, removing the settlers from the land is hard, even if they are dangerously close to the protected site. Removing the people could also generate chaos.

Parts Were Destroyed

In 2013, heavy machinery used in a limestone quarry destroyed part of the lines. The limestone firm said their plant was private property, and the owner could do what he wanted. On the other hand, it was argued that the quarry is located within the protected site.

A view of the Nazca Lines.
Source: Diego Delso/CC BY-SA 4.0/Wikimedia Commons

Although these ancient lines are a unique site, it seems people in the area do not care about protecting them. People would never harm the Egyptian pyramids or Easter Island, but since these are lines in the sand, they aren’t as respected.

They Were Fined

In another incident where people put parts of the lines at risk, they faced legal repercussions. In December 2014, Greenpeace activists set up a banner within the lines of one of the figures. It caused damage to the site, and they issued an apology after the incident.

View of the damage made by Greenpeace at the Nazca Lines.
Source: Twitter

Despite the apology, one of the activists was convicted and fined for their part in causing damage. The incident brought attention to other damaged figures outside the protected area by off-road vehicles. The damage was visible from satellite images, but that wasn’t the last incident.

He Drove Over Them

Just when you thought the damage couldn’t get worse, a truck driver drove over the lines in 2018. Jainer Jesus Flores Vigo ignored the warning signs and left “deep scars,” affecting the ancient site and damaging three figures. He was arrested for his careless actions.

The Nazca Lines / Vigo’s truck that made the damage.
Source: YouTube

Vigo was released because there wasn’t sufficient evidence that he drove over them purposely. Prosecutors tried to appeal the judge’s decision, seeking nine months of detention and a $1,550 fine. It’s speculated that he drove off the highway to avoid paying a toll.

Footprints on the Lines

After several destructive incidents, people have still not learned to respect this ancient site. Unfortunately, in July 2022, police found footprints in many areas of the lines. Tourists carelessly walked through the area, and investigators launched a search to find the culprits.

The Nazca Lines are right beside the highway.
Source: Imgur

The area where they found the footprints is only allowed to be viewed from the sea. Therefore, the discovery meant people were trespassing on protected land. Sadly, tourism is a major issue for historical sites because not everyone respects the fragility of these ancient lines.

Caught on Camera

The captain of a tourist ship told authorities he had spotted a foreign couple and their young son with a shovel damaging the area. Someone else captured a video from a nearby boat showing five people walking near a carved figure on a hillside.

The Hummingbird Nazca Lines.
Photo by Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Aside from the footsteps, police also found vehicle tracks unrelated to past incidents. Hopefully, those responsible for the damage will be found and held responsible for their actions.

No Survivors

One of the ways to view the Nazca Lines is by flying over them to see the massive figures. Unfortunately, a February 2022 flight over the lines ended in tragedy. Seven people died in a plane crash while flying above the lines.

A plane flies over the Nazca Lines.
Source: Facebook

The small plane crashed near the airport in the city of Nazca. The plane caught fire when it hit the ground, and there were no survivors. The crash was took the lives of two teenage tourists and a 30-year-old man.

Advanced Technology

While there are still many unanswered questions about the Nazca Lines, advanced technology could solve the mystery in the future. Researchers have started to use AI technology to preserve the designs so they can continue to study the ancient site even if parts are destroyed.

A view of the Nazca Lines.
Source: Tumblr

AI helped identify the newly discovered figures, showing a human-like figure with a headdress holding a staff. As technology becomes more advanced, researchers might be able to figure out why the Nazca dug these lines in specific shapes. For now, we only have theories.

They Need More Time

Believe it or not, the Nazca Lines have only been studied for about 80 years. They only gained widespread attention when planes could fly over them. Before that, no one could see the full figures from the ground. That is a relatively short period for something to be studied.

Nazca Lines shaped like a monkey.
Photo by Luis Rosendo/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Even within 80 years, researchers are still stumped about the lines’ purpose. Some still believe the alien theories, even though they have been disproved. While many want answers, we may never know the secrets behind the famous Nazca Lines.