Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Between the Nazca Lines: Evidence vs. “I Wanna Believe”

Well, we now know what a Cargo Cult is, and we are now up to date on the recent research into the Nasca Lines. What I haven’t brought you completely up to date on is the actual Ancient Alien Theory explanation of the Nazca lines. The History Channel sums it up pretty succinctly:

“The Nazca Lines


Etched into a high plateau in Peru’s Nazca Desert, a series of ancient designs stretching more than 50 miles has baffled archaeologists for decades. Along with simple lines and geometric shapes, they include drawings of animals, birds and humans, some measuring more than 600 feet across. Because of their colossal size, the figures can only be appreciated from way up in the air—and there is no evidence that the Nazca people, who inhabited the area between 300 B.C. and 800 A.D., invented flying machines. According to ancient alien theorists, the figures were used to guide spaceships as they came in for a landing, and the lines served as runways.”[1]

Never mind the screamingly obvious problems with the description, it does do a good job of summing up what most people think of the Nazca lines, inaccuracies and all.

This idea that the lines were used as landing strips seems to come from the presence of the long trapezoidal geoglyphs and the supposed evidence of a leveled mountain top. Von Daniken mentions this in his books, but I haven’t found reference to it, or concern about it, in any of the research. Still, these ideas persist.

So, the theory goes that the lines were laid either by man or alien in order to direct and provide a location for space ship landings. Tying this into the Cargo Cult connection; after the Aliens stopped coming to earth with their cargo, we humans began to build a religion around them, attempting to bring our alien saviors back to earth with misinterpreted ritual.

Websites abound on the Internet and even the History Channel, which has produced two seasons of a show called Ancient Aliens, tout belief in and even evidence of aliens. You can find lots of people who are ready to explain the Ancient Alien Theory and tell you all about the evidence supporting it. Not too surprising the Nazca lines fall into this category of evidence.

Even after the modern research mentioned in my last post, these sites still claim that the lines cannot be explained, that scientist still search for an explanation to the cause of the lines, even though this is not true. The reality is that we do have both really good explanations and building methods that require little more than a stick and some string.

Well known Skeptic, Joe Nickell, was able to reconstruct the geoglyphs in a remarkably short time using basic, simply reproduced, and most certainly available instruments for the time. Nickell’s, his two cousins, a friend, his 11-year old nephew, and father reproduced the 440 foot long Condor in just over a day and a half (baring time off due to rain).[2] They used merely a knotted rope, stakes, and a T-square they constructed from two pieces of wood. I really recommend the article; it’s a pretty good example of how the Nazca and their ancestors could have produced the geoglyphs without alien help.

(This is the Condor re-produced by Nickell et al. [2])

So, now we know how the glyphs were probably made, we have a pretty solid theory on why the glyphs were made, we even know a fair bit about the culture of the Nazca (though I haven’t touched on that here). We’ve got the How, the Why, the When, and even the Where. At every point we know humans did this, and not once is an outside force required to accomplish any of it.

Nickell also makes a point about the whole “They can ONLY be seen from the SKY” statement:

“It is frequently asserted that the Nazca drawings are recognizable only from the air. That is not quite true, certainly not of the smaller figures, such as the effigy of a fish, which is only 80 feet long (Reiche 1976). Neither is it true of some drawings — attributed to the Nazcas’ predecessors — that are found on hill slopes (McIntyre 1975; Isbell 1978, 1980). Here, seemingly, is a clue to how the Nazcas could have been confident of the accuracy of their method of enlargement. Once a technique was found to be successful for producing large drawings on slopes, where they could actually be viewed from the ground, the same technique could be expected to consistently yield good results — wherever figures were drawn and whatever their size.” [2]

This point was also made by The Nazca-Palpa Project in 2007 [3], where they not only dated the geoglyphs and gave sequence order to the deposition, they remarked that the smaller glyphs could be seen from a short distance, like from a slope [3].

I would hope at this point that I’ve provided enough evidence to remove aliens from the picture. I can show that the geoglyphs were most probably a cultural tool used to create a sense of community and possibly served ritual purposes dating from about 400 BC till sometime after 600 AD [3]. I have shown that they could have been created using nothing more than a sketch, knotted rope, and T-square [2], all of which was available in that time period. There is also the well known C-14 dates of the pottery sherds and burials associated with the lines, which help us put the lines into context [2,3]. There is no need to add aliens to the mix, they are unnecessary. They create a complication that is not needed since everything has a simple, human explanation. 

As I say in all my presentations, if you are a True Believer, there isn’t a damn thing I can provide to change your mind. All the evidence in the world will be wasted on you, but if you came to this looking to have a few questions answered, I can help you there.

The History Channel
2011    Evidence of Ancient Aliens? The History Channel website.
Accessed Jan 25, 2011.

Nickell, Joe

            1983  The Nazca Drawings Revisited: Creation of a Full-Sized

Skeptical Inquirer Magazine

Volume 7.3, Spring 1983.
Accessed Jan 25, 2011.


Isla, Johny
        2007        Nazca-Palpa Project: Photogrammetric Reconstruction of the
                        Geoglyphs of Nazca and Palpa
                        January 2007
Accessed Jan 09, 2011.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Between the Nasca Lines - What is a Cargo Cult? (Vid)


Where we look at what makes a cargo cult, and we attempt to explain why some people think the Nasca lines are related.

Suggested Reading:

Between the Nazca Lines: What is a Cargo Cult? bit.ly/fWqg63 (blog)

Brian Dunning 2010 Skeptoid #199 March 30, 2010 http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4199

Carr, Tarini The Nazca Lines: A Mystery on the Plains Archaeology Online http://www.archaeologyonline.net/arti...

Mercer, Phil. 2007 Vanuatu cargo cult marks 50 years. BBC News, Tanna, Thursday, 15 February 2007 http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacif...

Raffaele, Paul 2006 In John They Trust Smithsonian magazine, February 2006 http://www.smithsonianmag.com/people-...

and one lolly-gagger: http://mikejay.net/articles/the-last-...

Monday, January 10, 2011

Between the Nasca Lines : What are the Nasca Lines?

Let me tell you, there is a lot of crap out there about the Nasca Lines, and I do mean crap. Everything from linking them to 2012 to, of course Aliens. Surprisingly, Aliens are not the #1 explanation for the lines, it seems, from the sites I’ve seen, that the general consensus is that they are spiritual in nature. The Spiritual-ness is so broad and varied that I’m not going to even try and tackle it here.

The nitty-gritty of what the lines are made of is that the lines are glyphs that were “etched” into the southern Peruvian desert floor by the removal of the darker, oxidized brown rocks, reveling the whiter rocks below. The contrast of the lighter rocks against the darker rocks is what creates the lines, which form everything from animal glyphs (boimorphs) to geometric shapes [2]. Though the majority of geoglyps are dated to the Nasca Culture, some are even older [2, 3].

Perhaps the popularity of the lines came in the 1920s when commercial flights between Lima and Arequipa, Peru become available [1]. Other than speculation, no real research was apparently done on the lines until a German-born teacher named Maria Reiche made the first formal surveys of the lines and figures [1]. This was sometime after World War II and Reiche continued her surveys and conservation until her death in 1998 [1].

Of course Reiche had a hypothesis on what the geoglyphs represented, and in her surveys seemed to find evidence supporting it. Reiche hypothesized that the geoglyphs represented settings on an astronomical calendar [1]. This particular and perhaps first formal hypothesis is still one of the most popular, despite being mostly discredited by modern survey and research [1].

One such modern survey was called The Nasca Lines Project. In which Dr. Donald A. Proulx, a Professor of Anthropology at the University of Massachusetts, participated from 1996-2000. The project was dreamed up by one David Jonson, who believed he had found a strong spatial correlation between the location of puquios (an old system of aqueducts native to the area), wells, and the geoglyphs [2].

He hyposhisies that :

“…trapezoids lay directly over what he calls veins, but which more accurately are zones of higher permeability materials consisting of coarser gravels associated with distributary[sic] channels in the alluvial material. Johnson claims that the width of the trapezoids defined the width of the zone capable of transmitting ground water. A zigzag pattern located along the boundary of a trapezoid indicated there was no water and defined the boundary of the water flow. Triangular geoglyphs pointed to sources of water. The last correlation that he noted was that there were always archaeological sites affiliated with geological features, puquios and wells.” [2]

In what was to become Johnson’s hypothesis, he and Dr. Proulx further refined it.

“These observations led to a new working hypothesis for the function of the Nasca lines that was different from any previous idea: geological faults and alluvial gravels provide pathways for ground water flow, and they transmit water as a zone of concentrated flow into the valleys. These geological features collect water in one part of the drainage and conduct it across and down the valleys to locations where it can be reached by digging puquios or wells, or to locations where the water table is high enough for springs or seepage to be present on the surface. The ancient people realized they could find a reliable source of fresh water at these locations and that is where they established their habitation sites. Johnson claims the ancient Nasca marked the flow of subterranean water with geoglyphs. He argued that there are five factors that are consistently found together: geological faults and/or higher permeability sands and gravels with the alluvial fans, archaeological sites, an aquifer, a source of fresh water (spring, seep, puquio, or well), and the geoglyphs that mark their location. Where one or more of these features are found there is a high probability the others are present.” [2]

In the end, after thorough investigation and evaluation of the data, there were some favorable association with particular glyphs, but no concrete association overall.

It’s important to note here that this doesn’t completely invalidate Johnson’s hypothesis, but it does show that the original needs to be reworked in light of the new evidence.

Still, even with this extensive piece of research and survey, that I recommend people read over and follow associated links, the Alien proponents still hang on. Without conclusive evidence to the contrary (and even with), those who want to believe will, as Von Daniken shows us over and over. Even with the most recent and most comprehensive research into the lines done by Johny Isla, who Von Daniken mentions by name in his newest book, and Dr. Markus Reindel.

From what I can tell, Von Daniken seems upset because Isla led a team that has produced the most concrete explanation for the lines with some very in-depth insights.

Johny Isla is the director of the Andean Institute of Archaeological Studies. Published several times and is co-director of the Nasca-Palpa Project, with Dr. Markus Reindel of the Dutch Institute of Archaeology.

Dr. Markus Reindel’s focus on the project was photogrammetric mapping of the sites using photogrammetric reconstruction. Basically, they take a whole lot of high res pictures along with GPS points and then merge the data together to produce very detailed, practically 3D images. He published his teams work in “New Technologies for Archaeology, Multidisciplinary Investigations in Palpa and Nasca, Peru” in 2009.

So, back to the Project…

The Nasca-Palpa Project: Photogrammetric Reconstruction of the Geoglyphs of Nasca and Palpa, was extremely extensive, rather than list all participants I’ll just link you to the projects page here. It’s a bit of a read, with lots of good stuff, but the best is in the results, where they not only show you the awesome pictures they produced, but their written conclusions.

First they were able to date the geoglyphs, all of them. From their data, glyph making started in the Late Paracas times at about 400 BC [3]. At this time motifs normally engraved on rocks and boulders (petroglyphs) were transferred to the desert surface and the hillsides surrounding the valleys. These earliest figures were much smaller but still observable from far away and consisted of human shapes [3].

The geoglyphs continued until the end of the Nasca era (after AD 600) when the neighboring Wari empire from the eastern highlands extended its influence down the south coast. The deposition of pottery on the geoglyphs continued for a 200 years more and then ceased all together [3].

The project concludes that the Geoglyph complexes were probably related to kin groups who shared land rights [3]. Members would gather on different occasions to create new geoglyphs, or remodel existing ones. During ceremony they may have walked along the geoglyphs depositing ceremonial goods like ceramic vessels containing food or beverages, field crops, textiles, Spondylus shells etc. All these goods were in some way or another related to the concepts of water and fertility which were critical to the worldview of the ancient inhabitants of Nasca [3].
In this way the geoglyphs become part of the cultural landscape of the valley, creating massive gathering points for kin groups for ceremony or possibly just show. They helped establish group identity and status [3].

The project results concludes:

“It is important to note in this context that in a common effort vast stretches of the desert were marked at large scale and thereby integrated into the cultural domain of the valley-based society. Thus, like never before or later, the hostile desert was converted into dynamic and vibrant cultural space. However, the geoglyphs bear not only integrative, but also competitive elements. Visibility studies clearly show that intervisibility was an important aspect in geoglyph placement and order. Though the geoglyphs themselves were usually not easily discernable from neighboring sites, posts erected on them and people moving around them certainly were. Geoglyph sites therefore assumed a stage-like function, and group activity upon them raised awareness of group identity among members as well as outsiders. Thus, geoglyphs played an important role in defining group status. At the same time, geoglyph-related activity was somehow independent of changing societal circumstances down in the valleys. Distribution patterns of geoglyph sites proved to be much more stable than that of settlements, cemeteries and other cultural features. All in all, geoglyphs can literally be understood as common ground for all members of Nasca society.” [3]
I highly recommend people reading over this report. I’m not sure what Von Daniken found fault in beside his paranoid ramblings about how he wasn’t allowed to walk all over the sites whenever he wanted. Besides, the technology they used to photography the areas is pretty cool.

So in my own conclusion, though you’ll never find a scientist willing to say that the Nasca lines are without a doubt simply cultural and ceremonial in nature, the research speaks for itself. Even the original hypothesis by Reiche merely suggested the glyphs were aligned with seasonal constellations and celestial activity, she never went as far as to suggest more than simple utility.

There is no need to make these lines more than what they were. They were tools, maps, and group markers made by humans to aid humans in their everyday lives. They are still amazing in their size and scope. They speak to human ingenuity and group co-ordination. Let’s not make less of our ancestors, let’s admire them more.

Hall, Stephen S
2010 Spirits in the Sand: The ancient Nasca lines of Peru
shed their secrets.
March 2010

Proulx, Donald A.
The Nasca Lines Project (1996-2000)

Isla, Johny
2007 Nasca-Palpa Project: Photogrammetric Reconstruction of the
Geoglyphs of Nasca and Palpa
January 2007

Archy Twits