A new drawing of a cat has been found in Peru. You might say, "big deal" unless you're a fan of cats, or you're a fan of mysteries. That's because the cat drawing was discovered on the side of a steep hill, and it is part of the famous Nazca Lines.
What are they?
The Nazca Lines are what's called geoglyphs, which are essentially drawings made on soil. Located in southern Peru about 250 miles (400 km) south of the capital, Lima, the Nazca Lines were made sometime between 500 BCE and 500 CE.
The lines were made by removing the reddish-brown iron oxide-coated pebbles that cover the surface of the Nazca Desert, revealing the light-colored clay that lies beneath. The lines are 4 to 6 inches deep (10 to 15 cm) and they have remained undisturbed for so long due to the area's extremely dry and windless conditions, coupled with a near-constant temperature of 77° F (25° C).
The Nazca Desert is one of the driest places on Earth, and the Lines cover an area of about 170 square miles (450 km 2). The width of the lines varies considerably, with over half measuring 1-foot (0.3 m) wide, and others measuring 6-feet (1.8 m) wide.
There are three types of Lines: straight lines, geometric shapes, and pictorial representations. There are over 800 straight lines, some of which are 30 miles (48 km) long. The more than 300 geometric shapes include rectangles, triangles, trapezoids, and spirals.
There are approximately 70 figures depicting animals and plants, and many of them are colossal in size. The hummingbird is 305-feet (93 m) long, the condor is 440-feet (134 m) long, the monkey is 305 feet by 190 feet (93 by 58 m), and the spider is 154-feet (47 m) long.
What makes the Nazca Lines so tantalizing is that these designs and figures can only be recognized from a height, such as from a hilltop, or from the air. That wouldn't be mysterious except for the fact that between 500 BCE and 500 CE, no one was flying.
The Lines' history
The Nazca Lines were first mentioned in a 1553 book, and again in 1586. However, they were only really discovered during the 1930s by Peruvian military and civilian pilots flying over the area.
In 1940, American history professor Paul Kosok was in Peru studying ancient irrigation systems when he flew over the Nazca Lines. Kosok reported what he had seen, and that's when the "Lady of the Lines" got involved.
German mathematician and archaeologist Maria Reiche had studied mathematics, astronomy, geography, and foreign languages at the Dresden Technical University, and she was fluent in five languages. That helped her to land a job in 1932 as a governess for the children of the German consul to Peru.
In 1939 when World War II broke out, Reiche chose to remain in Peru, and she moved to Nazca to study the Lines along with Kosok. The two concluded that the Lines were part of a large-scale celestial calendar, with the figures pointing to places on the horizon where the sun and other celestial bodies either rose or set on the Summer and Winter solstices.
This is similar to Stonehenge in England; however, in 1990, two experts in archaeoastronomy, Gerald Hawkins and Anthony Aveni, concluded that there was insufficient evidence to back up Kosok's and Reiche's conclusions.
In 1949, Reiche published her theories about the Nazca Lines in a book entitled, The Mystery of the Desert. Reiche used the profits from sales of the book to hire security personnel to guard the Lines, and she eventually convinced the Peruvian government to restrict public ground access to the Lines. That restriction is still in effect today, however, the Lines can be flown over.
The person who really brought the Nazca Lines to the public's attention was Swiss author Erich von Däniken who published in 1968 the blockbuster book, Chariots of the Gods? In the book, von Däniken asserted that the Lines had been created by indigenous people in order to communicate with aliens who flew over the area, and that some of the Lines comprised an ancient alien landing strip.
Von Däniken might have been inspired by the figure of the Nazca "alien" shown below.
In 1998, senior astronomer at Chicago's Adler Planetarium, Phyllis Pitluga, described the figures as "representations of heavenly shapes," a conclusion that has been criticized. Since 1996, two archaeologists, Markus Reindel and Johny Island have been examining the Lines, and they have determined that some of the geoglyphs follow the paths of aquifers and aqueducts that collect water.
In 2011, a team from Japan's Yamagata University discovered two new figures, those of a human head and an animal. In a June 2019 article in Smithsonian Magazine, a multi-disciplinary team of Japanese researchers identified some of the birds shown in the Lines, and strangely, they weren't birds local to the area. That same year, the Yamagata University team, along with IBM Japan, announced the discovery of 143 new geoglyphs, some of which had been found through machine learning.
The Nazca Lines today
In 1994, the Nazca Lines were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In May 2018, on the 115th anniversary of her birth, Google commemorated Maria Reiche with a Google Doodle. Reiche's home in Nazca has been adapted into a museum called the Museo Maria Reiche. The airport at Nazca has been named the Maria Reiche Neuman Airport, and some 50 schools and other institutions in Peru have been named after her.
As the cat joins the other Nazca figures, we're still no closer to understanding the purpose of the Nazca Lines, or by whom they were intended to be viewed.