The Nazca desert is a dry desolate place, the surface teems with red stones and boulders, scrawny half dead, dried out shrubs dot the landscape, only interrupted by a sudden gush of green at one of the occasional oases hidden in the deep dried up river valleys. From the desert floor there is nothing particularly remarkable about this place with the exception of the world's largest sand dunes and the miraculous survival of humanity in such a place for thousands of years. But once you take to the skies all your preconceptions change. The desert floor transmogrifies into a giant canvas filled with shapes, images, lines and patterns - say hello to the Nazca and Palpa lines.
We took off from Nazca airstrip in a 6-man Cesna, 4 of us plus a pilot and guide. We spent the next hour flying over remarkable scenery, seemingly endless geoglyphs filled the desert floor and flat plateaus on the mountain tops. Lines and triangles are the major shapes, criss-crossing each other and partially overlaying earlier markings. The most fascinating to us however were the images; a spider, tree, condor, flamingo, numerous hummingbirds and people, some representing fertility others a divine family group and one a traveller.
There have been numerous interpretations proposed for the markings made in the Nazca desert since they were first made widely known in 1941 by Paul Kosok an archeologist from the US. He was joined shortly after by the German mathematician and archeologist Maria Reiche, who devoted her life to trying to protect, restore and unravel the mystery behind these geoglyphs.
The theories proposed range from the devout through the bizarre to the downright ludicrous, including aliens, supreme beings and an earlier civilisation that has since left our planet! The more palatable ones however have mainly been developed, or supported by, Maria Reiche.
All the markings have been made by creating a shallow trench (10-15cm deep) by removing the red surface rocks and using them as small edging walls. This exposes the white clay underneath which forms the lines. But what are they for? In essence they seem to be split into three categories, those representing deities or people, those associated with water and those associated with the skies.
The Palpa lines contain some of the oldest markings, believed to date back to 2000BC, produced by the Chavin culture. The earliest images tend to represent animals and people, later they produced deities and then an increasing number and variety of geometric shapes.
The human / deity images include a voyager, a man and woman representing fertility and a whole divine family. The geometric shapes include a solar clock, temple and a star.
Later on the Nazca valley became more inhabited and Nazca culture developed. In its early development, around 200AD more stylised animals were produced, as it progressed geometric shapes proliferated.
The triangles and lines have been interpreted as pointing to areas where water normally comes from such as dried up river beds and mountain gorges. It rains very little in this area, last year for a total of just 20 minutes, therefore it is proposed that the early civilisations that lived here between 400 BC 400AD would draw these triangles pointing towards their water sources and dance within them, perhaps performing animal sacrifices and other religious ceremonies to persuade their gods to provide them with water each year.
Some of the animal images produced are believed to represent water in its different forms. The whale signifies the sea, the hummingbird is humidity and the monkey, are not found in this area, is likely to represent the wet rain forests to the north east.
Other animal images could potentially relate to constellations and counter constellations, the dark shapes between the stars, and mark significant celestial moments e.g. the rising of a particular star, the summer and winter solstices and corresponding equinoxes.
Whatever they represent they truly are incredible works of art, determination and devotion.
The Owl Man or Astronaut is one of the unexplained images, potentially representing a deity, he is 35metres long and is one of the images quoted by the more bizarre theorists to explain extra terrestrial involvement
An overview model provided at the visitor centre gives you an indication of the size and scale of the lines
Uh oh - stowaway on board!!
A 93metre long hummingbird, perhaps symbolising humidity
One of the many huge triangular geoglyphs
The mighty Condor is 135metres long. In the Inca culture around 1400AD it represented heaven, perhaps it was the same 1000 years earlier?
The Spider (46metres) is believed to represent what we know as the constellation Orion. The 3 stars of Orion's belt would go across the narrow join of the thorax. In addition lines that pass through the spider point directly to where the first stars or Orion emerge above the horizon and different times of the year.
The tree of life (70metres) on the left represents the Huarrango tree that grows in the desert but only near water. It has very deep roots and is therefore a good indicator that water is present even if it is a long way down! The hands (50metres) on the right however are still a mystery, especially the one with only four fingers!
The Parrot, potentially represents the wetter forests to the north east
The lines and triangles stretch into the distance, some are over 4km long
The contrast between the lush river valley and the desert plateau is stark
The heron or flamingo represent the rivers
My favourite - this dude is believed to be the Voyager, a deity who protects people on their journeys. He is one of the older Palpa lines.
A triangle geoglyph overlays an earlier bird image
A man is shown in the top left, below right a woman and to her left a symbol of fertility - again these are much earlier Palpa lines and are much more simple in their design.
The Solar Clock
The Divine Family
...and some of their cousins!