Lines in the sand may have been made for walking

Celebrated desert drawings include a labyrinth

Famous line drawings etched into Peru’s Nazca desert plateau around 1,500 years ago are enduring puzzles. At least one of them is also a labyrinth, researchers say.

SKY LINES An aerial view shows part of what researchers regard as a massive labyrinth, including a spiral pathway (red box), etched onto a Peruvian desert floor around 1,500 years ago by members of the Nazca culture. Photo © Clive Ruggles

Archaeoastronomer Clive Ruggles of the University of Leicester in England discovered the labyrinth — a single path leading to and from an earthen mound, with a series of disorienting twists and turns along its flat, 4.4-kilometer-long course — by walking it himself. From the ground, little of the labyrinth is visible, even while ambling through it. From the air, it’s difficult to recognize the array of landscape lines as a connected entity.

In the December Antiquity, Ruggles and archaeologist Nicholas Saunders of the University of Bristol in England describe and map what they regard as a carefully planned labyrinth from the ancient Nazca (sometimes spelled Nasca) culture. Nazca civilization flourished in southern coastal Peru from around 2,100 to 1,300 years ago.

“This labyrinth was meant to be walked, not seen,” Ruggles says. “The element of surprise was crucial to the experience of Nazca labyrinth walking.”

Those who traversed the desert path encountered 15 sharp corners that ushered them down trails leading away from and back toward a large hill. Walkers then rounded a curve in the path and negotiated two more turns before entering a spiral passageway that dumped them a mere 60 meters (65.6 yards) from the starting point. It probably took around one hour to complete the journey.

People marched alone or single file along the narrow dirt lane, Ruggles suggests. Minimal damage to rocks lining the path indicates that labyrinth walkers strode with care, and that religious pilgrims who periodically crossed the plateau on the way to nearby Nazca ritual centers steered clear of, or were directed away from, the labyrinth.

Ruggles and Saunders reconstructed the path’s course in several small sections that had been washed away by rains. Fieldwork from 2007 to 2011 resulted in a map of the entire labyrinth.

There’s no way to know how the labyrinth was used, Ruggles says. Shamans or pilgrims could have walked the tricky trail on spiritual journeys. Or the path might have been reserved for Nazca gods.

Nazca line and animal designs covering 1,036 square kilometers of desert floor have previously been proposed as representations of constellations, ritual sites intended to elicit rain from the gods and, most notoriously, landing strips for spaceships of otherworldly visitors. In 2000, archaeoastronomer Anthony Aveni of Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., suggested that some Nazca lines formed labyrinths.

Ruggles and Saunders’ contention that Nazca labyrinths were made to be strolled through while staying mostly hidden from view “is novel and well-argued,” Aveni says.

Although smashed pottery litters nearby Nazca lines, no such relics appear in the labyrinth or on the adjacent hill. Ruggles hopes to excavate the mound to determine whether it’s a natural formation or a Nazca creation.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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