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Deciphering Peru’s Nasca Lines

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The mysterious lines stretch for miles across southern Peru, spanning the plains adjacent to the bone-dry Atacama Desert, Earth’s driest. Seen from above, they depict animals and people, spirals, trapezoids, and other geometric forms—or simply run straight, paths to nowhere.

Since they were first described by archaeologists in the 1930s and ’40s, people have speculated that these enigmatic “geoglyphs”—some more than 2,000 years old—were ancient highways, astronomical calendars, or perhaps runways for alien spacecraft.

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Who built the Nasca Lines and why?

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A new special premiering tonight at 10 p.m. ET/PT on the National Geographic Channel and an article in the March 2010 issue of National Geographic magazine shed light on these long-standing questions.

Both the special and the article highlight recent finds by Christina Conlee, a Texas State University-San Marcos archaeologists who has described evidence of human sacrifice at Nasca. Clues associated with a decapitated body at Nasca, and much of the artwork associated with other Nasca artifacts, suggest that water was central to the culture’s ritual and worship.

By extension, the Nasca Lines—produced over centuries by moving darkened stones aside to reveal the lighter desert pavement beneath—may have served as a vast stage for rituals intended to ward off deadly drought. The conclusion supports the theory outlined by National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Johan Reinhard in 1986 that, given the arid environment and the Nasca people’s critical dependence on rainfall to survive, the Nasca Lines may have been part of a larger system of beliefs designed to bring water to the desert.

To learn more about the mysteries of the Nasca Lines, read Stephen Hall’s article in National Geographic, make your own giant Nasca Lines with kids, explore the Nat Geo Channel’s Nasca Lines website, and watch the special!

Photographs by Robert Clark