IT’S A PUZZLE THAT HAS KEPT ARCHAEOLOGISTS—AND SCIENCE FICTION WRITERS—SPECULATING EVER SINCE.
In 1939, an American scientist studying irrigation systems in Peru was flying a light plane along the arid coastline near the village of Nazca when he made a startling realization. The lines carved into the earth over a 50-mile distance were not the remains of ancient waterways, as he had assumed, but enormous artworks. When seen from the air, the lines formed precise geometric shapes that numbered in the hundreds, as well as 70 figures, which included a monkey, whale, a hummingbird, a shark, spiders, and plants.
But why would the ancient Nazca people, who thrived here from 200 BC to 500 AD, have created illustrations that could only be seen from far above the earth? It’s a puzzle that has kept archaeologists—and science fiction writers—speculating ever since. The most notorious suggestion came in 1968 from pop-scientist Erich von Däniken, who declared in his oddball bestseller Chariots of the Gods that the lines were spaceship landing pads made by extraterrestrial beings, using their superior technology.
At the time, scientists declared the idea absurd and proved that the lines could have been created using simple tools and surveying equipment available to the Indians. But the motive is still unexplained. Do the lines indicate points on the horizon where celestial bodies rise and fall? Are the figures artistic reflections of constellations, or part of the Nazca astrological system? Today, the enormous artworks are off limits to foot traffic in order to protect the engravings in the delicate soil, but hundreds of travelers a day get a chance to speculate about the ancient gallery on a 45-minute aircraft flight.