Seeing the world, one country at the time

Nasca Lines, Tombs and Aqueducts

Today is our big day to discover the mystery of the Nasca lines on our own. We drive to the airport, where a slew of airline companies vie for the business of the curious gringos. We are flying Aeroica, and after a mix-up with the schedules, we are finally boarding an hour later, with a quiet Russian traveler and our pilot, who runs through the flight plan and explains exactly what figures we will see. The flight is a little bumpy, but smoother than a lot of transatlantic flights I’ve been on.
It’s only when he starts to swerve and dip and dive to get the best views of the figures that I feel my stomach churn.

The plane rises up above the Nasca plateau, and below us opens up a world of criss-crossed geometric patterns stretching as far as the eye can see, traversing river beds and hills and mountains, without ever a hitch. The lines in themselves are worth the trip. They are incomprehensible. Of course such a manmade, if indeed they are manmade, wonder provokes many questions and theories about their origin and their meaning. One is that the Nascas were trying to communicate with the gods, or with outer space. Another is that extraterrestrials were communicating with them. Everybody likes a good UFO story.

Thirdly, the most logical and therefore most boring theory is that in a time of famine and crisis, the Nasca people created ceremonial lines to honor and pray to their particular god or animal spirit for rain. This makes sense when you consider that most of the figures are of animals, and culturally very powerful ones at that, such as the whale, monkey and hummingbird. The jury is still out on this one, but thanks to the work of Maria Reiche and other determined anthropologists and archeologists studying the phenomena, we know a lot more than before.

We saw all these figures and more, such as the spider, hands, parrot and other spirals and trapezoidal forms. Our plane ride was spent trying to find them with the naked eye and then capture them on film without getting ill, but I still came away with the feeling of having experienced something magical and wonderfully inexplicable. They are impressive and incomprehensible, even in the most logical explanation offered. Mysteries keep us thinking and expanding our horizons in our striving to discover their key and that is the best part about them.

Once back on our land feet, we head to the cemetery of Chauchilla, nearby Nasca. It holds the remains of Nasca tombs that were ransacked for their valuables by “huaqueros”, or grave robbers, a sad problem plaguing Peruvian archeology. The “huaqueros” left the bones of these people scattered around the area, exposed to the elements. Many of the tombs have been reconstructed and filled with skeletons and materials from remains found outside. Others, which were lucky enough to escape the “huaqueros” have been and are still being excavated.

Excavation work in Peru is subject to the whims of government and international organizations, which supply the funds necessary. The lack of a steady supply of money to continue their investigations is aggravated by a constant battle against the greed of the “huaqueros” and the international market, which offers a higher monetary compensation for the exhumation of authentic pieces than for protection of them.

A washboard dirt road takes us to a little building housing the Chauchilla museum. Outside, separated by stone-lined paths, are the exposed tombs, rectangles built from adobe bricks and now covered by thatched roofs. They dot the flat and dusty landscape over a square kilometer. We visit the museum to find out about the burial customs of the Nascas, such as their penchant for “enfardelamiento”, a custom of wrapping corpses in materials to create a cocoon-like structure, which allowed for a dehydrated mummification. This method was unlike those used by other pre-Columbian cultures.

From there we walk down the path to each of the tombs visible, peeking in to see its inhabitants, bleached white from the sun and some wrapped in scraps of dark and dusty clothes, their long hair cascading around their bony shoulders. The long hair usually belonged to priests and was often buried with them. Lengths of hair were also hanging along the walls of the tombs. Other bodies were those of small children.
Artifacts of no value such as shards of pottery and random bones filled the empty spaces, but they still seemed far too vacant, and somehow lonely. The early tombs were just one chamber, holding one or more people. Later on, perhaps to save space or to keep families or certain types of individuals together, they placed more people in one tomb or added rooms on to create a row of tombs.

The whole place was a bit morbid and eerie, so after a while we moved on to another wonder of the Nasca, the Aqueducts of Cantayoc. This subtle construction hidden among farmers’ fields belies its brilliant hydraulic engineering design, which took advantage of slopes and nature’s own cleaning system. The complex design of the underground aqueduct and reservoir, which was used successfully by the Nasca and is still in use today, allowed the local population to access the water for personal use as well as for irrigation.

Water runs through a system of underground canals, which protects the water source from the elements and from humans and animals, yet lets the rocks and fish clean the water naturally. When that isn’t enough to keep it clean, spiral wells at regular intervals lead down to openings, which allow a person to go in and clean, and to access the water without having to go all the way to the reservoir.
The underground holes are entered via a spiral walkway, which gradually descends toward the water. This unique circular form is environmentally sound and shows the ability of the ancient culture to practice conservation and eco-friendly design.

Our group of four shuffles down to the bottom of one to look at the water, which runs downhill toward the reservoir due to another engineering feat. We climb back up and stand on the edge looking up the length of the aqueduct, which continues farther than the eye can see. The aqueduct travels far from its source to the reservoir, splitting up and crossing kilometers of farmland and looking from above like a complex land carving. Besides being an enduring testament to Nascan engineering skills, it is an aesthetic architectural work, pleasing to the eye.

Our last stop is Paredones, an Inca administrative center. The Incas conquered the Nascas, as they did every other culture in Peru at the time of their rise, and this is yet another example of their penchant for constructing administrative buildings in their typical niche and terrace style. Here however, they use adobe instead of the famous rock found in their buildings in the Andes, as they had to use what material was available. So these buildings, unlike their southern counterparts, have fallen apart, not withstanding the test of time. In comparison, the Nascas who were natives to the region and knew how to use their resources, created longer lasting and more impressive works and it occurs to me that it is a shame that we know so little about them.