Every society and culture has its hobbies. The Romans liked to watch people fight animals in arenas, the Aztecs enjoyed a bit of human sacrifice, and the modern Australians love a good barbecue. The ancient Nazca people, meanwhile, stuck out in the remote desert in southern Peru, appear to have enjoyed nothing better than drawing thousands and thousands of vast straight lines and animal pictures in the desert.
The above monkey picture, at approximately 90 metres by 60 metres in size, is probably the most famous of the Nazca images, but it is just one of over 70 desert drawings of cartoon-like creatures. Some are much smaller, some are larger: one bird image covers the area of five football pitches. These figures are the showstoppers, the novelty that has attracted the tourist eye, but they are just a small part of the overall puzzle that make up the Nazca Lines - they mostly take up a 10 square mile strip near the south bank of the Ingenio River in an overall line-covered area of 400 square miles. The rest is geometrical forms, trapezoids, spirals, zigzags, and thousands and thousands of miles of dead straight lines.
The natural reaction to hearing about the Nazca Lines is to ask questions. They beg them all: who, why, how, when, where, and how many. Some of these can be readily answered, the easiest being "where" - as mentioned above, they are contained within a 400 square mile section of the Nazca Desert in southern Peru. "How many" can be approximated also - thousands of miles of straight lines, and several hundred shapes, including the famous animals. More continue to be discovered.
"How" the lines were made also comes with a surprisingly ready answer. The Nazca Lines are actually a substraction, they join the heady ranks of Petra and the caves of Ellora by being products of the removal process, albeit it on a much simpler level. By clearing rocks and pebbles from the desert floor, lines were made. The rock that makes up the desert floor is dark due to being exposed and oxidised; clear it to the side and you're left with the unoxidised rock, which is much lighter. This stark difference in shade made the lines clearly visible. Due to minimal wind erosion and virtually zero water erosion, the lines have remained stable over centuries.
Certain unfinished lines further suggest how the people who first made them went about it. These unfinished lines still have piles of stones in the middle, and the piles are always about an arm's length away. Teams of workers would have gathered the stones from the emerging lines, systematically put them into piles, and then dispersed them by the sides. Additionally, wooden posts for surveying have been found at the end of some lines. The archaeologist Anthony Aveni managed to form his own line and spiral using no more than some string and a few people: they managed 27 square metres in just 90 minutes, going leisurely. Although there are clearly a lot of lines, they are not a labour intensive or even particularly skilled process to make; Aveni estimated that 10,000 people could have done the entire desert in around ten years.
This was just a theoretical estimate of course; the makers of the Nazca Lines formed them over a much longer period. But who were they, and when did they do it? Today we call them the Nazca people, or the Nazca culture, but this name simply comes from the modern town of Nazca which happens to be closest to the lines. That is, we have absolutely no idea about their original name. Written history in Peru only begins in 1526 when the Spanish first arrived then invaded, before that we just have folk tales, with archaeology trying to make sense of it all. With the Nazca people, we don't even have the folk tales. Pretty much all we know about them through their pottery, which was in vogue between 100 BC and 800 AD, although settled life in the area goes back as far as 9000 BC. The Nazca people made very sophisticated, multi-coloured pottery, with distinctive styles that changed over time, just as styles of painting has changed in the Western world over the centuries.
When not busy making loads of pottery, we know that the Nazcas liked to create straight lines in the desert due to materials found there and by carbon dating. Bits of pottery found match up with pottery from Nazca times, but even more leading is the carbon dating. Carbon dating can only be done on formerly-living organisms- so how do you date a rock? In the case of the Nazca Lines, it's possible. It's rather fascinating actually. When the iron and manganese-rich surface of the rocks are exposed, microscopic amounts of organic material - bacteria especially - gets trapped between the rock and the newly oxidising layer. So when making their lines, every time the Nazca people turned over a rock - boom, organic material trapped, carbon dating can begin. By this means, most of the creature figures - glyphs is the more proper term - all come with a date around 360 AD, plus or minus 75 years. Analysis of ceramic material found there roughly correlates with this. A process called optimally stimulated luminescence, which may be more accurate, dates them at between 400 and 650 AD. That's the picture glyphs at least; the straight lines, which are far more numerous, would appear to be from later. One clear visual sign of this is the way they often directly cross over an animal glyph, like a train track cutting through a forest. How much later seems to be debatable, with some suggestions that they were formed 500 years later but others suggesting the difference was much less.
It does seem as though the animal glyphs had a different function to the straight lines... and here we get into the bones of the mystery of the Nazca Lines - "why". What the hell were they made for? There are many different theories, often ridiculous, sometimes tenuous, never simple. The simplest answer is that there is no easy answer, and we don't really know. We cannot relate to a culture that we know almost nothing about. While outlandish theories such as being giant racetracks or for laying down epic lengths of cotton are nice and punchy, they have no basis in reality. More accurate theses are less succinct, but probably get closer as to why a remote desert culture would spend so much time making patterns in the desert. Possibly the animal figures relate to deities associated with the weather and crop fertility; their complex pottery suggests a multitude of spiritual forces in their surroundings, more than we can ever understand.
The straight lines are likely not directly associated with the figures. They generally seem to radiate from mounds, and there is evidence the lines may have been footpaths of sorts. These paths may have had ritual purposes, or practical purposes in both linking and dividing territory, or a mixture of these.
Less likely are they gigantic astronomy star maps, as is still commonly thought, or solar markings. Apart from the fact that the desert, being foggy and with rubbish sunsets, is an appalling place for looking at the sky, nothing actually lines up beyond your run-of-the-mill coincidence. I could draw a hundred lines and points on a piece of paper and some would match up with constellations and sunsets. But that doesn't mean I've drawn a mystical star chart.
Of course, the best way to see the Nazca Lines is by air, something its makers could never have done, but is something readily offered in modern day Nazca. They drew these giant lines and images for their own inscrutable reasons, but could never have seen them in their full glory. Perhaps they didn't want to: it was reserved for their gods. Well, it's the 21st Century now, and I have the same privileges, by means of a small aeroplane and less than $100. It's difficult to imagine the Nazca Lines as one of the great Wonders in terms of awe and majesty; its slightly later addition to my list is more on the basis of its mystery and enigma: it does indeed make you wonder. And thinking about something long after it has been seen or experienced is certainly the sort of impression I'm hoping the Nazca Lines will make.
I'll be visiting the Nazca Lines some time next year, and will give a fullers account of them and their history then, as well as my own impressions.