The Mystery of the Nazca Lines

By Alan F. Alford
Author of 'Gods of the New Millennium', 'The Phoenix Solution', 'When The Gods Came Down' and 'The Atlantis Secret'.


Since the Nazca Lines were discovered in the 1930s, not one single theory has been put forward to explain all of the marks on the desert plain. A prominent scientist has called it 'one of the most baffling enigmas of archaeology'. However, I have recently completed an extensive worldwide study of ancient cultures which offers some intriguing new insights into this archaeological enigma.

Why have the Nazca Lines proved such an insoluble mystery? The reason lies in the sheer variety of designs, which include around 300 pictures, commonly referred to as 'geoglyphs'. Some of the better known of these figures are shown to scale in Figure 1. The relative sizes of the spider, monkey, condor and lizard (among others) can be judged against the largest figure - a stylised heron with a zigzag neck, approximately 900 feet long. However, as diverse as these geoglyphs are, others are different again, consisting of totally abstract shapes. And even among the abstract designs, there is diversity. Whilst one design in particular contains no less than 365 angles, others, in the form of spirals, contain no angles at all.

Figure 1 - Nazca Geoglyphs
(Adapted from M.Reiche, 1968)

Although the recognisable animal geoglyphs draw most of the attention at Nazca, they are in fact dwarfed by the huge trapezoidal (wedge-like) designs such as the one shown in Figure 2. Some of these wedges have sides more than 2,500 feet long. The wedges, in turn, are outdone by the lines themselves, which run perfectly straight for up to 5 miles.

Figure 2 - Nazca Lines wedge shape

What could have been the purpose of all these diverse lines and geoglyphs? The Nazca plain is virtually unique for its ability to preserve the markings upon it, due to the combination of the climate (one of the driest on Earth, with only twenty minutes of rainfall per year) and the flat, stony ground which minimises the effect of the wind at ground level. With no dust or sand to cover the plain, and little rain or wind to erode it, lines drawn here tend to stay drawn. These factors, combined with the existence of a lighter-coloured subsoil beneath the desert crust, provide a vast writing pad that is ideally suited to the artist who wants to leave his mark for eternity.

Figure 3 - Nazca Lines Overview

Seen as a whole (Figure 3), the Nazca Lines appear to be a jumbled mess, scattered seemingly at random over the desolate plain, crossing and intersecting for no apparent reason. In some places, carefully drawn geoglyphs have been partly obliterated by the huge wedges. Furthermore, there is a great contrast between some drawings which have been perfectly executed, and others which have been sloppily drawn. More puzzling still, many of the images are so big that they can only be viewed from the air at a height of 1,000 feet. By whom were the lines and figures intended to be seen?

In 1969, Erich von Daniken floated the idea that airborne extraterrestrials might have laid out the lines as runways for their aircraft.[1] However, his imaginative theory ran into a number of problems. First, it is claimed that the soil is not hard enough to sustain repeated landings of heavy aerial craft. Secondly, why did the alleged extraterrestrials not design something far more sophisticated? Thirdly, many lines are only 3 feet wide - too narrow for aircraft. In addition, von Daniken has failed to explain the meaning or purpose of the animal geoglyphs.

The foremost expert on the Nazca Lines is undoubtedly Maria Reiche, a German mathematician who has devoted more than fifty years of her life to the study and protection of the Lines.[2] Reiche has led a determined effort to discredit the von Daniken theory of extraterrestrials. The strategy of this attack has been to argue that the Nazca Indians constructed the Lines relatively recently - some time between 300 BC and AD 800. In support of this possibility, some scientists have put forward ingenious ideas on how the geoglyphs could theoretically have been designed from the ground. The more important evidence, however, is that which attempts to link the Lines definitively to the Nazcan culture. Here, neither of the two key pieces of evidence survive close scrutiny.

The first piece of evidence is a series of radiocarbon dates, based on ceramic and wood remains which were left at the Lines by the Nazcan people. It is claimed that this proves that the Nazcans constructed the Lines. On the contrary, the dating of these materials tells us only that the Nazcans lived in the area of the Lines. Since the Lines themselves cannot be radiocarbon dated, the possibility remains that they already existed when the Nazcan culture emerged.

The second piece of evidence is the alleged resemblance of the Nazca geoglyphs to certain features found on Nazcan pottery. This is an important issue because it potentially offers proof that the Nazcans had either designed the images or at least viewed them from the air.

Figure 4 shows four examples of Nazcan pottery exhibited by the museum in the nearby city of Ica. The first supposedly matches the lizard in Figure 1; the second supposedly matches the spider; the third supposedly matches the hummingbird (top left of Figure 1); and the fourth supposedly matches the whale (bottom right of Figure 1). In all cases the similarities are tenuous and key points of detail from the highly stylised geoglyphs are different or missing on the pottery. Five other examples (not shown here) are equally tenuous. In their eagerness to disprove the von Daniken theory, the experts seem to have forgotten that it is quite normal for ancient artists to reproduce figures of birds, insects, reptiles and sea creatures. If the judgement of these experts had not been so clouded, they might have wondered why the Nazcans did not decorate their pottery with the more unusual designs of the Nazca plain - the wedges, the intersecting lines and the abstract shapes.

Figure 4 - Nazca Pottery

How does Maria Reiche explain the purpose of the Nazca Lines? Although Reiche admits not to have reached a definite conclusion, she leans heavily towards the theory that they represent an astronomical calendar. She claims that the Nazcans used the lines and figures to measure the key points of the solar year to assist with agricultural planning. However, Reiche's theory, like von Daniken's, has collapsed under the overwhelming weight of logical argument stacked against it.

In 1968, a study by the National Geographic Society determined that, whilst some of the Nazca lines did point to the positions of the Sun, Moon and certain stars two thousand years ago, it was no more than could be expected by mere chance. In 1973, Dr Gerald Hawkins studied 186 lines with a computer programme and found that only 20 per cent had any astronomical orientation - again no more than by pure chance. In 1982, Anthony Aveni obtained similar results, whilst in 1980, Georg Petersen pointed out that Reiche's theory did not explain the different lengths and widths of the lines. More recently, Johan Reinhard has noted that the surrounding mountains provided a ready-made and much more effective mechanism for the Nazcans to use as a solar calendar; the lines would thus have been quite superfluous to them. In addition to this avalanche of scientific opinion, we should also note that Reiche, like von Daniken, has failed to explain the significance of the animal geoglyphs.

How else might we explain the Nazca Lines? They were certainly not Inca roads, since many lines begin and end in mid-desert, and they were certainly not irrigation canals, since most of them do not lead to sources of water. With all possible practical purposes exhausted, many writers have begun to focus on the symbolism of the lines and figures. All manner of religious cults have now been suggested - ancestor cults, water cults, fertility cults and mountain cults.

The leading proponent of the cult theory is Johan Reinhard, who has identified many lines leading to religious shrines, water sources or mountains.[3] Reinhard has argued convincingly that the Nazcans worshipped the mountains, but why would they worship inanimate objects? Reinhard noted a widespread belief amongst ancient Andean cultures that various gods - whom they revered as their ancestors - resided in the mountains. These gods controlled the weather and hence the water supply which determined the fertility of crops and livestock. Reinhard added that the chief god Viracocha was closely associated with both mountains and water.

How does the worship of mountain-gods explain the Nazca Lines? Johan Reinhard detailed various ancient traditions, according to which the mountain-gods took to the skies in the form of eagles or condors. As Reinhard explains, this cult theory explains the single most significant aspect of the Nazca Lines:

    'That the figures can be best seen only from the air is explainable as being due to the ability of the mountain deities to oversee the area, such as appearing as birds or in the form of the flying feline.'

Could this be a vital clue towards solving the mystery?

Throughout the world, ancient peoples were obsessed with Sky-gods who would fight battles in the Sky and descend to the Earth. In my books 'The Phoenix Solution' and 'When The Gods Came Down',[4] I revealed that these Sky-gods were associated with the disintegration of a celestial 'mountain', with the depictions of such a mountain symbolising an exploded planet, and with the term 'mountain' thus referring metaphorically to 'planet'. In short, I concluded, beyond any reasonable doubt, that the religions of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia were 'exploded planet cults'.

Might my decoding of the ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian mountain-gods enable us to solve the mystery of the Nazcan mountain-gods? In short, might the Nazcans, too, have followed an exploded planet cult? At the moment, the jury is out on this question, but it strikes me that such a cult would certainly explain the profound religious beliefs which evidently inspired the Nazcans to draw their astounding array of lines and geoglyphs.

As for the mystery of how the Nazcans managed to raze mountain tops and draw perfectly straight lines over ravines, it must be said that these achievements, whilst being totally awesome, are no more awesome than the achievements of other ancient peoples elsewhere in the world, the Great Pyramid of Giza being a notable example. The important question, then, is not whether ancient man could have performed these miraculous works, for it is quite clear that at some point in time he did. Instead, the vital question should concern the impulse which drove ancient man to reach beyond his everyday limits in order to service his gods.

What could that impulse have been? Unless we are to postulate a Von Daniken type theory (and the odds must be stacked against that, at any one point in time), our best guess must surely be that the Nazcans derived their gods from their experiences of fireballs in the sky and meteorites falling to the Earth.

(Investigation to be continued...)


[1] E. von Daniken, 'Chariots of the Gods', Souvenir Press, 1969, first published in German 1968.

[2] M. Reiche, 'Mystery on the Desert', 1st edition, Heinrich Fink GmbH, Stuttgart, 1968.

[3] J. Reinhard, 'The Nazca Lines', 5th edition, Lima, 1993, pp. 12-56.

[4] A.F. Alford, 'The Phoenix Solution' 1998 & 'When The Gods Came Down' (2000), both by Hodder & Stoughton, London.


Further Information

This article is copyrighted (C) 1998, by Alan F. Alford. All rights reserved.

Last Updated: July 22nd 1998