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Between the Lines

Between the Lines
The Mystery of the Giant Ground Drawings of Ancient Nasca, Peru

A noted scholar of archaeoastronomy examines the the Nasca Lines, giant drawings of animal, human, and geometric figures that cover 400 square miles of barren pampa in southern Peru.

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January 2000
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271 pages | 6 1/8 x 9 1/4 | 83 b&w photos, 37 line drawings, 4 maps |

The Nasca Lines are one of the world's great enigmas. Who etched the more than 1,000 animal, human, and geometric figures that cover 400 square miles of barren pampa in southern Peru? How did the makers create lifelike images of monkeys, birds, and spiders without an aerial vantage point from which to view these giant figures that stretch across thousands of square yards? Most puzzling of all, why did the ancient Nasca lay out these lines and images in the desert? These are the questions that pioneering archaeoastronomer Anthony Aveni seeks to answer in this book.

Writing for a wide public audience, Aveni begins by establishing the Nasca Lines as a true wonder of the ancient world. He describes how viewers across the centuries have tried to interpret the lines and debunks the wilder theories. Then he vividly recounts his own years of exploration at Nasca in collaboration with other investigators and the discoveries that have answered many of the riddles about who made the Nasca Lines, when, and for what purposes. This fascinating overview of what the leading expert and his colleagues currently understand about the lines is required reading for everyone intrigued by ancient mysteries.

  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Part One. Prelude
    1. Introduction: A Mystery on the Desert
    2. Wonders of the World: Nasca in Perspective
  • Part Two. Processional
    1. Nasca before Columbus
    2. Seeing Is Believing: Rediscovering the Pampa
  • Part Three. Ceremony
    1. Sacred Landscapes: A Nasca for a New Millennium
  • Part Four. Recessional
    1. Ley Lines to Labyrinths: Remaking the Earth beyond Nasca
  • Notes
  • Index

Anthony F. Aveni is the Russell B. Colgate Professor of Astronomy and Anthropology at Colgate University in New York.


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They have been called the eighth wonder of the world--archaeology's greatest conundrum--the Nasca lines. Ever since the first commercial aviators spotted them flying toward the high Andes in the 1930's, the giant ground drawings that cover 400 square miles of southern Peru's coastal desert floor have challenged all explanations. Acre-sized tracings of hummingbirds, foxes, and condors; a hundred-foot-tall man with owl-like eyes, his arm raised beckoning to us from a hillside (see frontispiece); dozens of spirals, zigzags, triangles, and trapezoids; and a thousand miles of long straight lines crisscross the dry wasteland. Could these geoglyphs be effigies of ancient animal gods or patterns of constellations? Are they roads, star pointers, maybe even a gigantic map of the world? If the people who lived in south coastal Peru some 2,000 years ago had only a simple technology, how did they manage to construct such precise figures? Did they have a plan? And if so, who ordained it? It all seems so otherworldly.

In 1976, I invited a group of archaeologists, anthropologists, engineers, and surveyors to share their findings concerning the enigma on the desert (the pampa, as the locals call it, after the Quechua word for plain or space). Together with other investigators who were already studying Nasca, we spent nearly two decades trying to answer these questions. Between the Lines tells the story of what we discovered. We think we now know how these earth markings were made, even who made them and when, but the great mystery of Nasca that has always confronted us is why--why move tons of dirt and stone around on a desolate landscape for no apparent reason? To offer our collective solution to the puzzle we needed to learn more about the people who lived there at the base of the Andes from the beginning of the Christian era all the way up to the time of the Incas, the last great civilization to come to the river valleys that border the barren Nasca plain, just before the Spanish arrived in the sixteenth century.

Between the Lines puts our solution to the Nasca puzzle in perspective by chronicling the history of visits to and explanations about the mystery on the pampa, from colonial conquistador to modern astronomer, historian, artist, engineer, anthropologist, and adventure-seeking explorer of the contemporary age. All those who travel to Nasca to decode the puzzle seem obsessed with finding their own meaningful answers to the problem. We will discover that artists have pronounced the figures artwork while some mathematicians and engineers believed they harbor a record of a lost culture's advanced knowledge of geometry. Astronomers have said the straight lines point to the stars and that the animals are constellations. Peering at the Nasca geoglyphs through many different eyes over the ages helps put my own view in place, a view based on the cultural and physical evidence I and my colleagues spent years collecting and interpreting. Finally, there may be an even more profound question worth considering from the Nasca achievement. What motivates people all over the world to sculpt their landscapes on a grand scale, from the dead-straight ley lines of Great Britain to the great serpent mound of Ohio, from the 150-foot figure of a man carved on the desert floor near Blythe, California, to contemporary environmental art?

Decoding the lines is a complex and changing puzzle, one that invites us to think about the many processes that influenced their construction and our interpretation of the Nasca phenomenon. I once pulled a copy of an early seventeenth-century astronomy text off a dusty shelf in a remote corner of an antiquarian bookshop. As I recall, it was a text on "pastoral astronomy"--it had less to do with how to watch stars in the field, more with how to understand the place of astronomy in religious endeavors. Surprisingly, the little tome still proffered the even then somewhat outdated idea of an earth-centered universe. Being pre-Darwinian, the text never employed the term "stellar evolution," and of course the Big Bang was never mentioned. In the margins of the book I found page after page of at least three sets of comments, two of them written in different colors of faded ink, by readers now long deceased. I surmised these once astute readers were students who used the book in a course taught at a nearby college. The third set was of very recent vintage, and it matched both hand and date inscribed on the inside cover. In the chapter on the solar system in the section that dealt with planetary orbits, one of the older commentators posed the question "Then how to explain the annual motion of nearby stars?" (first detected in 1838). This comment lay next to a sentence stating that God so created the universe with a fixed earth in the center. On the opposite margin, same line, the recent commentator simply inscribed "!!!" (which I translate as: "Are you serious?"). I marveled at what a different set of reactions to a text a couple of centuries could produce. Such is the case at Nasca.

I want my readers to think of the Nasca lines as a text in the landscape, a text whose marginalia have been writ over a long period of time, indeed over several centuries. We are but the most recent of several generations of readers and interpreters of this text. We make our notes in the margin in response to questions and problems we raise about the text, and our remarks shall forever reflect the times and conditions in which we live. This is not to deny that progress might be made in attempting to reveal cultural truths about the lines. In Between the Lines I aim to give a rational account of the processes that went into both the indigenous "writing" of the Nasca text and the marginal notes (including my own) that give insight into the minds of those who have given it a good read.



“A rigorous researcher and lucid writer, Aveni leaves his reader-enthusiasts with a multidimensional mystery in which astronomy, religion, and the effective use of fragile terrain all play important roles.”

“This book is a tour de force. . . . [It] makes a good and important contribution to public knowledge of the Nasca Lines.”
Katharina J. Schreiber, Professor and Chair of Anthropology, University of California, Santa Barbara