The Mystery Behind Peru’s Incredible Nazca Lines

Lines and Geoglyphs in the Nazca desert, Peru
Lines and Geoglyphs in the Nazca desert, Peru | © Vadim Petrakov/Shutterstock
Harry Stewart

In the arid coastal plains of southern Peru lies a mystery that has baffled scientists and archaeologists for almost a century. Etched out of the sand by ancient indigenous people for reasons which are still largely unknown, the purpose of the Nazca Lines has spawned countless theories since their discovery some 80 years ago.

The mysterious Nazca Lines were not discovered until the advent of modern aviation when a pilot flying overhead noticed the stunning geoglyphs back in 1939. Over time, dozens more were uncovered; approximately 70 of the geoglyphs depict complex animals and other natural formations, while the other lines are just simple geometric shapes.

The hummingbird

The hot, dry climate, infrequent rain and relentless sun that is typical of the region is ideal for preserving the lines, while a sub-layer rich in lime has hardened over the years to provide further protection from wind erosion. Nevertheless, many believe there were originally far more shapes than what is visible today. A sandstorm in 2014 uncovered two new patterns of a snake and a llama, adding fuel to speculation that up to 700 geoglyphs may have originally existed.

Scientists have managed to determine that the lines were drawn by digging a four- to six-inch trench in the dark upper strata, which exposes the lighter earth underneath. Some primitive stakes were found at the scene, suggesting that a basic knowledge of surveying aided the effort.

Tests have shown that this occurred over a period of some 500 years, most likely between the 1st and 6th centuries. A prolonged effort to say the least. But one niggling question remained. Why?

Nasca Lines – The monkey

Several theories have been put forth to explain why on earth these Pre-Inca people spent so much time and effort drawing lines in the sand. Were they for irrigation? Navigation? Or some sort of celestial calendar? More creative theories have suggested they created them for aliens who visited the region centuries ago.

In 2004, a team of archaeologists from the Texas State University discovered a headless mummy who was determined to be the victim of a human sacrifice. Buried near the mummy were various pieces of pottery containing similar patterns to the Nazca Lines. Furthermore, a number of artworks appearing to depict worshipers dancing around the lines were later uncovered.

Nazca line of ‘The Astronaut’

This discovery gave rise to the most credible theory yet—that the lines were drawn to appease the gods in return for rain. Nazca is an inherently dry region that receives very little rainfall each year. Finding water would have been absolutely crucial to the survival of the Nazca and would justify the monumental effort involved.

However, a 2017 theory proposed by Rosa Lasaponara of the National Research Council claims satellite imagery links the Nazca Lines to nearby spiral-shaped wells called puquios, which were used for irrigation. Her theory is that these wells fed water through a complex series of canals and underground aqua ducts which could have transformed the arid desert into a lush garden oasis, a profound hypothesis which implies the Nazca were far more advanced than previously believed.

Nazca water well in Peru

But why would these irrigation channels appear as monkeys, snakes or llamas? Lasaponara believes the canals may have been built in divine shapes to praise the Gods for bringing water to the region.

landscape with balloons floating in the air


Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world

Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.

Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.

Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.

Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.

We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.

Winter Sale Offers on Our Trips

Incredible Savings

Edit article