Unravelling the Nazca Line Theories: Beyond Ancient Artistry

Around 260 miles south of Lima, the Nazca Lines are one of the most marvellous and enduring legacies of ancient Peru. But who built the Nazca Lines, and why? Nazca Lines theories range from the plausible to the preposterous, but what’s the truth behind these mysteriously mystifying markings?

14 December 2023

The high, arid plateaus of Peru’s southern desert are home to the Nazca Lines mystery, one of history’s most enigmatic masterpieces. These colossal geoglyphs – large designs or motifs carved into the Earth – where the Paracas and Nazca cultures once flourished, cover a vast area of the desert floor. Created between 500 BC and 500 AD, the lines were brought to more widespread attention in the 1920s by Peruvian archaeologist Toribio Mejia Xesspe, who spotted them while hiking through the foothills.

Theories about the Nazca Lines abound, but it’s believed these geoglyphs are the legacy of the Nazca people, an ancient pre-Columbian culture known for its understanding of mathematics and astronomy, as much as for its artistry. Yet despite being extensively studied, archaeologists, historians, geologists, academics and amateur sleuths alike are no nearer to finding out who built the Nazca Lines, and perhaps more importantly, they’ve yet to uncover why they were built and their purpose.

How were they made? How was it possible to create such astonishingly accurate geoglyphs over such a wide area without aerial assistance? Are they astrological? Are they calls to the gods for water? Are the supposed ‘Nazca Lines aliens’ trying to tell us something?

Let’s journey to South America to shed some light on these peculiar Peruvian patterns and explore theories about the Nazca Lines, ranging from the believable to the bizarre.

What are the Nazca Lines?

High angle view of Nazca lines, Nazca, Peru. (Credit: Glowimages via Getty Images)

The Nazca Lines are a collection of huge geoglyphs including approximately eight hundred straight lines, over three hundred geometric figures, and between seventy and a hundred figures of mythical beings, animals and plants, also known as biomorphs.

Geoglyphs of animals include a hummingbird, fish, monkey, dog, cat, and what a number of entomologists believe to be an incredibly rare spider from the genus Ricinulei. What’s fascinating about this particular spider is that it’s not indigenous to Peru. Its natural habitat is anywhere from the Amazonian rainforests in Brazil to as far north as Texas in the United States. In addition, it’s tiny, only around two centimetres long. So how did it end up as a massive diagram in incredibly fine, anatomically accurate detail on the floor of a Peruvian desert? It’s important to note that there isn’t a consensus on the species it represents, rather the idea it’s from the genus Ricinulei is a matter of opinion rather than fact. There is also one humanoid figure affectionately known as The Astronaut. All told, it has been estimated that the Nazca Lines are made up of over 13,000 individual lines.

So who built the Nazca Lines? It’s believed they were made by the Nazca people, and, possibly, the Chavin and Paracas people who preceded them. The lines were created by removing the reddish-brown iron oxide-coated pebbles that cover the surface of the Nazca desert and revealing the contrasting light-coloured earth underneath. It’s thought that small models were made, and then ropes and stakes were used to scale them up.

The width of the lines varies from around thirty centimetres to almost two metres, while the biggest shapes are close to four hundred metres long. Due to the incredibly dry and windless climate, the lines are almost perfectly preserved and remain almost exactly the same as when they were created two millennia ago.

Discovery and Rediscovery

Image of gigantic geoglyphs, known as the Nazca lines (Credit: ERNESTO BENAVIDES / Contributor via Getty Images)

Theories about the Nazca Lines have been discussed since as early as the sixteenth century, but it wasn’t until 1927, when Toribio Mejia Xesspe noticed them during a hike, that they started to come into the public consciousness. It was in the 1930s, with the advent of air travel between Lima and the southern city of Arequipa, that the full scale of the Nazca Lines became evident.

Among the first people to study the lines in detail were American historian Paul Kosok and German-born Peruvian mathematician and archaeologist Maria Reiche Grosse-Neumann, known as The Lady of the Lines who dedicated much of her life to studying the Nazca Lines mystery. They were both of the opinion the lines were astronomical by design, but that is far from certain.

The true purpose of these geoglyphs remains a topic of speculation and debate. While some Nazca Lines theories suggest they were part of complex astronomical calendars or ritual pathways, others propose they served as offerings to the gods visible only from the heavens.

It’s worth noting that new lines are being found all the time. Using state-of-the-art drone technology, in recent years archaeologists have uncovered over fifty more lines, and it’s believed there are many more yet to be located which may add new dimensions to the understanding of their purpose.

The Nazca Lines Theories

Geoglyph spiral on soil in Nazca, Peru (Credit: Olena Lialina via Getty Images)

The Nazca Lines mystery has been the subject of speculation and research since their discovery, with theories ranging from the scientific to the speculative, occasionally venturing into the realms of conspiracy and fringe. What’s widely accepted is that the Nazca Lines were made with a specific purpose in mind.

Astronomical & Cosmological

One of the most plausible theories about the Nazca Lines is that they functioned as an astronomical calendar and an observatory for solstices and other celestial events. Maria Reiche was a prominent proponent of this idea, believing that the geoglyphs were aligned with the positions of celestial bodies and used to track solar and lunar cycles, possibly for agricultural purposes.

Religious & Ritualistic

Some archaeologists consider the lines to be part of religious ceremonies. The geoglyphs might have been processional routes or paths used as a form of worship or pilgrimage, possibly to call upon water deities for rain.

Social & Political

Some who have studied the lines propose their creation served some sort of social purpose, uniting communities through collective labour. The act of creating these geoglyphs could have been a way of reinforcing social cohesion or displaying power and knowledge.


Another theory suggests that the lines may have pointed to sources of water, which are crucial in such a dry environment. They may have served as a guide to underground aquifers or been part of a ritual to summon water.

Aliens and Beyond

Another of the theories about the Nazca Lines suggest they were runways for alien spaceships. Did ‘Nazca Lines aliens’ land in the desert and interact with the ancient inhabitants?

Other Explanations

Other theories put forward to solve the Nazca Lines mystery include their use as giant looms for weaving textiles, as tracks for sporting events, and as appeasements to deities to ensure fertility, an abundant harvest or a constant supply of water.

It’s also possible that there wasn’t one single purpose, but they were multifunctional. Some may be astronomical, others may point to water sources, yet more may be agricultural by nature.

The scientific community generally favours explanations that place the lines within the cultural and environmental context of the Nazca people, aligning with known practices of astronomical alignments and ritual landscapes. Despite the many studies and theories, the true purpose of the Nazca Lines remains a profound mystery, with each theory contributing to the ongoing fascination with these ancient enigmas.

The Nazca Lines Mystery: A Legacy Etched in the Earth

Geoglyph of the Nazca lines in the Nazca desert of Peru. (Credit: powerofforever via Getty Images)

In the vast expanse of the Peruvian desert, the Nazca Lines continue to pose an alluring challenge to our understanding, a perplexing puzzle from the past.

These geoglyphs serve as a testament to the Nazca people’s ingenuity, reflecting perhaps a confluence of astronomical, religious, and social significance that transcended their earthly existence. While theories about the Nazca Lines proliferate – from scholarly assertions of celestial calendars to extraterrestrial markers – the Nazca Lines ultimately underscore the profound human impulse to create, to signify our presence, and to connect with realms beyond our immediate grasp.

Will we ever unravel the Nazca Lines mystery? Perhaps one day, but for now, they remain an enigmatic example of unsolved history.


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