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  • Writer's pictureSpiced Cranachan

The Lady of the Lines

My father used to tell me stories about strange pictures in the desert that could only be seen from above. Spiders and monkeys and birds that are almost invisible to anyone on the ground, even those walking right beside them.

What did this look like to the mind of a child? In the early days of the Internet, you couldn't just search for the photographs that now swarm Google Images in the millions. I pictured gigantic lines stretching for miles and miles, great drawings etched into the surface of the Earth, disappearing over the horizon.

How delighted was my inner child when I visited the desert in person not one week past, and found the Nazca Lines to be exactly how I pictured them all those years ago.

Monkey Geoglyph, often associated with the Big Dipper constellation

The Nazca Lines have been on my bucket list for as long as I can remember. More than anything else in Peru, this is what really drew me to the country. I was honestly shocked to find out that most tourists skip Nazca altogether and are ultimately uninterested in the geoglyphs of the desert. These drawings, which were once described as "the largest astronomy book in the world" are a geological marvel, and pose some of the biggest unanswered questions about ancient civilisations.

Nazca itself is a charming place off the well-beaten track of Peru. From my window at night, as I tried desperately to avoid the sweaty confines of my room and catch the cooler air outside, I watched children play on the streets and the helados vendors cycle up and down on their yellow tricycles. The rooftops were cluttered and often topped with the day's laundry, all of this against the backdrop of the Andes and the setting sun.

It was here that I would learn about the Lady of the Lines.

It rained this evening, a small sample of the 4mm that fall each year

Maria Reiche first arrived in Peru in 1933. She had studied astronomy, mathematics and geography, and could speak five languages. She found work in Cusco and Lima as a teacher and translator, until in 1941 she met the American researcher Paul Kosok, who was investigating the irrigation systems of the country. During a flight later that year, they passed over the desert and Maria saw the Nazca Lines for the very first time.

The earliest mention of the Lines dates back to 1553, when Pedro Cieza de León (conquistador and chronicler of Peru) described them as "trail markers." They would later be reported by both military and civilian pilots although they were also partially visible from nearby hills, as evidenced by Peruvian archaeologist Toribio Mejía Xesspe who spotted them in 1927.

Maria and Paul would spend years studying the Lines to determine their meaning. In 1948, Paul returned home and Maria took up the baton. She would spend the rest of her life studying the lines and advocating for their preservation and protection.

Maria Reiche: the Lady of the Lines

Towards the end of her life she lived permanently in a hotel in Nazca; following her death it was turned into a museum and planetarium. Unfortunately, this was under construction during my visit, but a small corner of the site remained open to educate visitors about the stars, the lines and the lady.

Her decades-long research of the desert was truly incredible. She noted a clear correlation between certain lines and water, and theorised that they could have been made as a religious plea for water from the gods above. She also identified the mathematical precision and sophistication of the Nazca. These weren't merely lines in the sand, but a potential sun calendar and observatory for astronomical cycles.

Indeed, she would later prove the connection between the Spider glyph and the constellation of Orion; they are not only similar in physical appearance, but the stray lines leading out from the spider met the horizon exactly where the constellation appears in the night sky.

Overlap of Orion and the Spider
Overlap of Orion and the Spider

My guide at the planetarium confessed his sadness that so few knew of Maria's work. It was she who led the campaigns for the preservation of the desert and hired guards for the lines, she who lobbied and educated both officials and the public. In 1994, the Nazca Lines finally became a UNESCO World Heritage Site, largely due to Maria's efforts.

He then showed us footage of her final visit to the desert. Years exposed to the harsh desert sun had made her blind, and she had to be led by hand. She struggled to walk, and was showing the early symptoms of Parkinson's Disease.

Maria Reiche died on 8 June 1998 and was buried in the desert with official honours. The airport in Nazca is named after her, as is a park in Miraflores which displays recreations of the geoglyphs. Over fifty schools and institutions across Peru bear her name.

Maria Reiche and Paul Kosok (credit: the Maria Reiche Foundation)

Without Maria, there would be no Nazca Lines today. These wonders have survived millenia thanks to the dry, stable condition of the desert, but the last century has threatened their longevity. Only with Maria's efforts did the site gain international attention and become a protected site.

Without her, I might not have ever heard of the Nazca Lines, let alone visit them. They have spawned a thousand stories and conspiracy theories, and enchanted the minds of scientists and story-tellers alike. Many have pondered for decades about their purpose, and I doubt we will ever know the truth.

The Heron, whose beak leads to the rising sun of the winter solstice

The Nazca Lines hold within them secrets never to be revealed. Monkeys, fish, whales - none of these are found in the desert. Why did the Nazca draw them? What ceremonies took place at the ritual altars?

Some of the images are markedly unusual, with five fingers on one hand and four on the other. The Monkey glyph, for example, or the Lines of Hands glyph. Why was this important to the Nazca?

We will never know. I believe the lines are possibly one of the greatest discoveries and greatest mysteries of mankind. Maria Reiche deserves to go down in history as the Lady of the Lines; the woman who fought for them, and who just so happened to have four fingers on one hand and five on the other.

"If I had a hundred lifetimes, I would have given them to Nazca. And if I had to make a thousand sacrifices, I would have made them, if for Nazca.”

- Maria Reiche

2 comentarios

26 ene

Very interesting and awe inspiring

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25 ene

Fascinating. You should post this on Peru's tourist website

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