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The Nazca lines: A life's work

The World Heritage listed Nazca lines are a well-known part of the ancient heritage of Peru. But one woman spent over 50 years studying and protecting them. Ana Maria Cogorno Mendoza shares the story of Dr Maria Reiche

Maria Reiche with Paul Kosok in 1939 (Image: The Maria Reiche Foundation)

The lines and geoglyphs of Nazca are one of the most impressive-looking archaeological areas in the world and an extraordinary example of the traditional and millenary magical-religious world of the ancient Pre-Hispanic societies. They are located in the desert plains of the basin river of Rio Grande de Nazca, the archaeological site covering an area of approximately 75,358.47 ha, where for nearly 2,000 uninterrupted years the region’s ancient inhabitants drew on the arid ground thousands of large-scale zoomorphic and anthropomorphic figures and lines: animals, birds, insects, other living creatures and flowers, plants and trees, as well as geometric shapes and miles of lines of deformed or fantastic figures. In 1939 they were rediscovered and a year later, Dr Maria Rieche, began a lifetime of study and protection of these remarkable sites.

The impressive story of the Pre-Hispanic culture in Peru dates back to before the arrival of the Spanish Conquest. Over many centuries, ancient civilisations created a vast array of wonderful monuments all over Peru, but all of them had in common an astronomical connection. These cultures developed advanced techniques of agriculture, gold and silver work, pottery, metallurgy and weaving. Some of the social structures from the 12th century formed the basis of the later Inca Empire.

The Nazca Lines

One of the most sophisticated of the early Peruvian cultures is the pre-Hispanic Nazca civilisation, known for the carvings which they etched onto the surface of the ground between 400 BC and 650 AD. The builders of these magic and mysterious lines and geoglyphs of Nazca and Palpa created a sacred place. The geoglyphs are one of the most unique and extraordinary artistic achievements, unrivalled in their diversity and dimensions, anywhere in the world. In the arid Peruvian coastal plains, 450 km south of Lima, in the high and arid plateau of the basin of Rio Grande, the area stretches 50 km between the towns of Palpa and Nazca.

The Nazca plain is virtually unique in its preservation due to the combination of the climate, one of the driest in the world, with little rainfall each year, and the flat stony ground which minimises the effect of the wind at ground level. Beneath the desert’s crust of pebbles, which contain ferrous oxide, is a lighter-coloured subsoil. The exposure over centuries has given the crust of pebbles a dark patina. When the dark gravel is removed, it contrasts with the paler-coloured soil underneath. In this way, the lines were drawn as furrows of a lighter colour, even though in some cases they became prints. In other cases, the stones defining the lines and drawings form small lateral humps of different sizes. Some drawings, especially the early ones, were made by removing the stones and gravel from their contours and in this way the figures stood out in high relief. The concentration and juxtaposition of the lines and drawings leave no doubt that they required intensive long-term labour, as is demonstrated by the stylistic continuity of the designs, which clearly correspond to the different stages of cultural changes.

It was not until the 20th century, however, that the Nazca lines drawn in the sand were actually discovered. Peruvian archaeologist Toribio Mejía Xesspe first saw the lines in 1927 after finding them almost by accident, since they are practically invisible at the surface. He assumed that they were 'sacred pathways'.

Dr Maria Reiche

Dr Maria Reiche was born on May 15, 1903 in Dresden, Germany, where she graduated in Mathematics, Geography and Astronomy, as well as speaking five languages. In 1932 she arrived in Peru to work in Cusco city as a teacher to the sons of the German Consulate, where she lived for three years.

"She had devoted more than half her life to the measuring and mapping of the lines. Her intensive work for so many years was also costly to her health as exposure to the bright sun eventually caused her to go blind"

In 1939, Paul Kosok, an American professor in History at Long Island University in New York and the main expert on irrigation systems of ancient cultures of the world, came to Peru. He was interested in the irrigation system in the Nazca region, and became the first scholar to explore the lines in depth. The following year, he introduced Maria Reiche to the site and a new hypotheses soon developed. They happened to be standing near one of the long straight lines at sunset when they both made a discovery that would change their lives.

Maria Reiche died on June 8, 1998, at the age of 95. She had devoted more than half her life to the measuring and mapping of the lines. Her intensive work for so many years was also costly to her health as exposure to the bright sun eventually caused her to go blind. During her lifetime she received much acknowledgement and numerous honours from all over the world and inspired many new generations of scientists with her passion in preserving the Nazca Lines. One of her greatest achievements was the nomination of the Lines and Geoglyphs of Nazca and Palpa World Cultural Heritage as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, and her great efforts in the protection and maintenance work of the site became the responsibility of the Peruvian Government.

This article is from the Autumn 2016 issue of Timeless Travels magazine.

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