February, 2010Peru’s Nasca Lines, giant geometric and animal-like shapes crisscrossing the desert, have presented one of the world’s great mysteries since they were discovered in the early 1900s. Until recently, they were thought to be such things as ancient racetracks or giant celestial calendars or landing strips for UFOs.
Current research by archaeologists—including Christina Conlee of Texas State University-San Marcos—is beginning to explain the mysteries of the Nasca Lines. The lines are now thought to have been constructed as ritual spaces where the Nasca culture (A.D. 1-750) made offerings to gods for the water they needed to survive in Peru’s coastal desert. Archaeologists have found fertility symbols such as pottery and rare Spondylus seashells placed along the lines, and satellite imagery shows that the lines themselves have been compressed, probably from ritual walking or dancing.
National Geographic magazine will publish these findings and others about Nasca religious practices in an article titled “Spirits in the Sand,” in its March 2010 issue, on newsstands in mid-February. An article will also appear in National Geographic Kids magazine, and a filmed version of the story, “Nasca Lines: The Buried Secrets,” will air on the National Geographic Channel Feb. 21 at 9 p.m. CST (see http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/episode/nasca-lines-the-buried-secrets-4477/Overview). Additional photos and content will be posted at www.nationalgeographic.com. The articles and program will feature research by Conlee and by anthropologists from Peru, Germany and Italy.
“You can’t understand the lines without understanding the lives and religious practices of the people who made them,” said Conlee, pointing out that, because the Nasca lived in a dry desert environment, their primary concern was finding enough water, and they worshipped water deities. They also practiced decapitation as a fertility rite.
Conlee made a spectacular discovery in 2004 of a young man’s headless skeleton in a Nasca tomb, which provided convincing evidence of ritual decapitation among the Nasca. The skeleton was found sitting cross-legged with a ceramic “head jar” placed next to it—a jar painted with two inverted human faces and branches encircling the vessel.
Because of the young man’s age, the clean decapitation of his skeleton, and the presence of the jar, Conlee theorizes that the victim was killed to ensure agricultural fertility and the continuation of society. The shedding of blood may have been considered necessary to nourish the earth to produce a good harvest, said Conlee, who also studies the Nasca creation of trophy heads, large caches of which have been discovered recently.
“The trophy heads have had the brains removed. They’ve been stuffed with cotton, and a hole has been drilled in the middle through which a string is drawn,” she explained. “For many years, it has been thought that these heads were the heads of enemies taken in battle and displayed as trophies to show the warriors’ prowess.
“But our isotopic analysis of the trophy heads and of the decapitated skeleton shows that they are not those of foreigners taken in battle but of local people,” she said. “This is a major breakthrough, suggesting that decapitation and the creation of trophy heads was ritual in nature. In Nasca art, you see heads associated with plants and other types of fertility images, suggesting that heads were an important offering to the gods.”
In considering the connection between decapitation, the creation of trophy heads, and the construction of the Nasca Lines, Conlee said, “Although no trophy heads or sacrificial decapitations have been discovered on the lines as offerings, they are part of the same religious system that created the lines. The Nasca knew they needed water to survive, and drought likely precipitated their collapse. We’re trying to get a better idea of how their religious practices fit together in their efforts to save their civilization.”