The Nazca civilization, successor to the Paracas, flourished between 100-800 CE in the river valleys of the Nazca Rio Grande drainage and Ica Valley, beside the dry southern coast of Peru, now the Nazca Province in the Ica Region. Today they are mostly known for having produced striking polychrome ceramics with 15 or more distinct colors, equally detailed textiles, a still-functioning system of underground aqueducts, and the Nazca Lines. This agriculture-based society was eventually destroyed by devastating floods, which the Nazca perhaps exacerbated by gradually cutting down Mesquite trees to accommodate more agriculture.
Life in Many Colors
The Nazca communicated through the symbols on their art, as they had no writing system. Major themes include mythical beings with animal/bird/fish characteristics, mythical killer whales, spotted cat, horrible bird, harvester gods, serpentine creatures, the use of the hallucinogenic San Pedro cactus, warfare scenes, and decapitation scenes. One look at some of these intricate and bizarre pieces and you´ll agree that the Nazca were the original surrealists! (Probably due to some of that San Pedro cactus…)
The Desert Mummies
On the slightly more macabre side…if you´re interested in gaining a true understanding of the history of Nazca culture, you can´t skip the mummies of the ancient necropolis of Chauchillas. Thanks to resin painted on corpses during burial rites, as well the dry climate of the Peruvian desert, the mummified human remains at Chauchillas are remarkably well-preserved. Despite a thousand years of age, bodies still retain hair and soft tissue such as skin. You´ll also observe what are known as “trophy heads”- severed heads with holes bored through the skull in order to allow a rope through. These are thought to have served either as battle trophies or as ceremonial items. (Don´t worry about the poor bodies left without heads…in what might be the worst trade in history, the Nazca would thoughtfully leave them “head jars”, ceramic vessels with heads painted on them.) Although most of the valuables have been sacked by tomb raiders, the mummies and archeological artifacts left behind and on display today offer priceless clues to ancient Nazca cultures.
To sustain life in their extremely arid environment, the Nazca built an impressive system of underground aqueducts which remain in use to this day, although some modifications have been made. Underground channels lined with riverocks (because mortar would not allow water to enter) known as puquios tap into subsurface water which travels to subterranean aquifers before being transported to irrigation canals or deposited into reservoirs. Manholes were placed along the surface so people could enter for maintenance. The length of the channels is estimated through the distances covered by manholes, since the channels are too dangerous to explore underground. Cantalloc has some of the best preserved channels, if you´re interested in touring this admirable feat, check the tour site.
The Mystery of the Nazca Lines
There are many competing theories regarding the purpose and method of construction of the Nazca Lines, large geoglyphs discovered in the Nazca region. These pictorial depictions of animals and geometric shapes cover miles of the desert floor. Due to their large scale they can really only be appreciated by flying over them, which is a popular activity for visitors to Peru. As one of Peru´s most famous sites, this one can´t be missed. Some researchers theorize that they were created for the gods to look upon them from above or ceremonial pathways, while others suggest they were some sort of calendar with astronomical alignments that would aid in planting and harvesting of crops.
There´s lots more to see in Nazca, which we´ll hopefully get to in a subsequent post. If you´re planning on stopping by, however, there´s a centrally located Pirwa Hostel there- with free internet so you can keep checking the blog….