Nasca lines seen from above. © Talía Barreda / PROMPERÚ

Who were the Nasca?

By Cecilia Pardo-Grau, Peru Project Curator 

Publication date: 11 November 2021

Thriving in one of the most arid regions in the world, the Nasca lived on the southern coast of modern-day Peru for around 850 years until AD 650.

Peru exhibition curator Cecilia Pardo-Grau introduces their culture, including the colourful pottery, textiles and stunning Nasca Lines they're known for.

Who were the Nasca?

The Nasca people lived on the southern desert coast and western slopes of the Andes in Peru between 200 BC and AD 650, adapting and thriving in one of the most arid regions in the world. They are particularly famous for their colourful pottery, textiles and geoglyphs known as the Nasca Lines – hundreds of huge lines, geometric figures and figurative images carved into the earth covering more than 500 square kilometres.

The beginnings of the Nasca

The Nasca arose from the Paracas, a culture that developed around 700 years before in the valleys of Pisco and Ica, 200 kilometres to the north of Nasca, the area in south western Peru. Genetic studies of DNA samples have shown that the Paracas and Nasca were the same ethnic group, and archaeology has shown that they shared similar beliefs. For example, both cultures were conscious of the need to ensure the supply of water for agriculture and believed it was provided by their ancestors as givers of life.

Round vessel of a woman with long hair, wearing a red cape decorated with mythical beings.
Vessel of a woman with long hair, wearing a cape decorated with mythical beings, Nasca, Peru, 100 BC–AD 650.

Towards the end of the Paracas culture, groups migrated from the north and highlands and settled in the southern valley of Nasca, where new cultural traditions were developed around the ceremonial centre of Cahuachi.

Cahuachi was the most important centre of Nasca society in its early phase (AD 50–300). It was where the distribution of water gathered from the highland regions was controlled and also the starting point of the paths that led to the geoglyphs and ceremonial areas. The location of the site between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean also helped it play an important role in facilitating the highland and coastal communities' interactions with one another.

Map of the area of the Palpa and Nasca geoglyphs, showing the location on the Pacific Coast, and also within Peru.
Map of the area of the Palpa and Nasca geoglyphs.

The Nasca Lines

The landscape of Nasca has a particular feature that differentiates it from other coastal regions. This is an area of the Andes where a cordillera (a coastal mountain range) runs across the region, from north to south. Thousands of years ago, the depression between the cordillera and the Andes filled with rounded boulders and finer sediments, creating a vast plain commonly known as pampas. These pampas were crossed by rivers fed by seasonal rainfall coming from the Andes, forming coastal valleys that could be used for agriculture through the implementation of irrigation systems.

The peoples of Nasca saw the pampas as a ritual space – a massive blank canvas between the Pacific Ocean coastline and the foothills of the Andean mountains on which to draw hundreds of enormous lines and figurative images. Known as geoglyphs, a term meaning 'drawings in the earth', they transformed the rocky terrain of the desert into a sacred space and could only be seen in their entirety from the sky.

An aerial photograph showing the monkey geoglyph. The monkey has a large spiraling tail and hands reaching down together.
The monkey geoglyph, Nasca, Peru © Walter Wust / PROMPERÚ.

But how were the Nasca Lines made? Building on earlier traditions from the Paracas, the Nasca created the images by removing a top layer of earth and exposing the lighter sediment beneath. Over time, the wind gradually swept away fine sand from the surface of the Lines, leaving behind a thick layer of small stones that were darker in colour due to the oxidation process. The favourable climate conditions – being very dry, windless and stable – have meant that many have been preserved until the present day.

And what happened at the Nasca Lines? Research suggests that the Nasca walked along the Lines in groups, performing rituals and lively celebrations with music and dance. Evidence of human activity has been found along the geoglyphs, including the discovery of ceramics, offerings and possible remains of building structures. Scientific analysis of the compacted soil in the Lines also shows that they were heavily walked upon.

Sounds, music and gods

Music was very important to the Nasca, as shown by the sheer number of instruments such as panpipes, whistles and drums found in the area.

One of the main discoveries was from a 1995 excavation by archaeologist Giuseppe Orefici, which included 27 damaged ceramic panpipes. A current theory relating to their damage is that the objects would have been broken intentionally as part of an offering or sacrifice and would have been used in ceremonies.

These panpipes might have been used in celebrations conducted by priests or shamans, who would dress up in colourful clothing and masks. In these ceremonies, the consumption of psychoactive substances such as the San Pedro Cactus – which contains mescaline, a strong hallucinogen – was paramount. Through special rituals, the shaman was thought to gain supernatural powers that allowed him to call on the gods.

A photograph showing Nasca panpipes buried in the earth during excavations.
Nasca panpipes © Giuseppe Orefici-Archivo CISRAP.

The Nasca's principal deity is known as the 'Mythical Being'. This human-like being adopts the traits of different animals and can be recognised by its nose piece with feline whiskers, diadem (a type of crown) and necklace with trapezoidal (geometric-shaped) beads.

In the Central Andes, societies perceived time in a different way to Western civilisations. This was intrinsically linked to their culture and landscape (and in particular, their dependence on agricultural cycles where sowing and the harvest would determine survival), as well as their beliefs in the afterlife. In this belief system, the deceased were transformed into ancestors who inhabited a parallel world of the divine. In Nasca society, ancestors were seen as intermediaries between the two worlds of the living and the dead, playing an important role in guaranteeing that resources such as food and water would be abundant. They are often shown wearing nose rings with feline whiskers or with other animal attributes such as those of the bird or whale – as seen in the drum below, on loan from the Museo de Arte de Lima.

Large ceremonial drum with a pointed bottom, decorated with red, orange and brown depictions of mythical beings and people.
Ceremonial drum depicting a mythical scene, Nasca, Peru, 100 BC–AD 650. Private Collection on loan to the Museo de Arte de Lima. Photo: Daniel Giannoni.

Climate change and the end of the Nasca

There were lots of reasons why the Nasca civilisation came to an end, including environmental and social changes. Recent studies suggest that although living conditions in the region were less extreme than today, they grew increasingly more difficult over time. Towards 100 BC, climate change resulted in a long process of desertification that eventually forced populations to abandon the lower lands and settle at higher altitudes – a process that may have led to the collapse of the culture.

Human activity may also have contributed, whether through deforestation or increased fighting. We see the number of images of warriors depicted in art increases significantly towards the end of the Nasca culture, when pressure on their society forced populations to relocate.

In spite of the demise of the Nasca, their legacy lives on in the amazing geoglyphs that remain etched into the landscape. In 1994, the 500-square-kilometre area containing the Lines was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and conservation and protection of these incredible drawings continues today.

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