National Geographic News
A photo of petroglyphs in Peru.

Paracas geoglyphs were aligned with the sunset on the winter solstice.


Dan Vergano

National Geographic

Published May 5, 2014

Ancient residents of Peru laid down lines of rocks in the coastal desert that may have pointed to the sites of trade fairs, a new study suggests. The features date to around 300 B.C., centuries ahead of the famed Nasca lines. (Related: "Spirits in the Sands.")

The Paracas people of southern Peru were some of the earliest settled villagers on the Andean coast. They're known for building two striking features: ceremonial mounds near their homes on the coast and lines of piled rock, or geoglyphs, in the overlooking highlands. Some of the lines stretch for more than 1.9 miles (3 kilometers).

Other ancient Andean cultures, most famously the Nasca farther south, also built sizable geoglyphs. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences report, co-authored by Charles Stanish of the University of California, Los Angeles, offers a new explanation for the lines. (See: "Nasca Lines: Decoded.")

A photo of petrogylphs in Peru
Marred by tire tracks, geoglyphs line the Andean highlands.

"If you want people to come to your trade fair, you have to point the way," Stanish says. "These lines point straight to the ceremonial mounds on the coast where people could trade."

Finding a straightforward explanation for the geoglyphs "finally [gets] rid of the esoteric aura which surrounded the 'Nasca Lines' in public perception during much of the last century," says environmental historian Ingmar Unkel of Germany's Kiel University.

Rather than making ancient people mystical, the study—partly funded by the National Geographic Society—points to more concrete explanations for creating rock lines in the middle of nowhere.

Location, Location, Location

The study researchers mapped 71 lines in a 15-square-mile (40 square kilometers) area. The lines were located more than 12 miles (about 20 kilometers) from the coast of southern Peru's Chincha Valley, midway between coastal and highland settlements.

The lines point to five ceremonial mounds, in some cases aligned in directions that marked the winter solstice in June, a likely festival time. "They were meant to be seen from above," Stanish says.

Excavated pottery and radiocarbon dating from three of those coastal mounds suggest these sites were in business at least 2,300 years ago.

That means the Paracas lines may pre-date the famed (and more elaborate) Nasca lines, which were scraped into desert stone in the Andes—"pushing the use of these lines back about 200 years," according to Stanish.

The coastal ceremonial centers were advertising their existence to traders or pilgrims from Peru's highlands, he believes. The Paracas people built ever-longer geoglyphs as a competitive way to mark the way to the biggest market.

Unkel, however, is more cautious: "It is also possible that the Chinca lines are younger and were constructed after the platforms."

A photo of the Cerro Gentil pyramid in Peru.
The Cerro Gentil pyramid, shown here, aligns with the solstice sun.

Chariots of the Gourds

The Paracas culture seems to have collapsed around 100 B.C., while the Nasca flourished roughly from A.D. 100 to 600. That makes connecting the use of geoglyphs between the two cultures "a tough question," Stanish says.

But while the study authors see a distinction between the Paracas geoglyphs and the later Nasca lines—famed for animal shapes and human figures, as well as the attentions of 20th-century UFO aficionado Erich von Däniken—Unkel points to other studies showing more of an overlap in dating between the Paracas and early Nasca geoglyphs.

A photo of the excavation of petroglyphs in Peru.
Ceremonial mounds, here under excavation, were aligned with the geoglyphs.

Also, the study authors see "little doubt" that the June solstice served as a festive moment for Andean people; the sunset's position on the solstice was marked by towers in northern Peru dating to about the time of the Paracas and by stone pillars built by the Incas.

Unkel offers some caution on this score as well. "The leaders of all ancient societies that I know have put their efforts on predicting the arrival of the rain," he says. "I would assume that the determination of the summer solstice [December in the Southern Hemisphere] would be of higher importance, announcing the arrival of new water."

A technology called luminescence dating may settle the age of the Paracas geoglyphs once and for all, he adds. Until then, scholars can argue the details, and "that is what keeps research in Peru for all of us exciting."

Follow Dan Vergano on Twitter.

Marten Berkman
Marten Berkman

It would be very nice to see a map of these lines.

Sharon Pribble
Sharon Pribble

It is wonderful to realize all the things people created that long ago.

Robin Edgar
Robin Edgar

There is a reason why the winter solstice was of such importance to the ancient Peruvians, to say nothing of numerous other ancient cultures. The winter solstice marks the annual "death" and "rebirth" of the sun, and this event echoes the much more spectacular "death" and "rebirth" of the sun that occurs during total solar eclipses. My research indicates that ancient cultures transferred religious ideas born out of witnessing total solar eclipses onto the winter solstice because, unlike total solar eclipses, the winter solstice is an annual event rather than a comparatively rare one.

Total solar eclipses can and do take place in what may be thought of as clusters, when two or more total solar eclipses occur over a small geographical area within a few years or a few decades. An unusually high number of total solar eclipses took place over southern Peru during the time that the Nazca Lines were created. My researches indicate that the Nazca Lines biomorph geoglyphs, which are clearly intended to be viewed from the sky, were a religious response to the fact that the totally distinct sun distinctly resembles an "eye in the sky" or indeed an "Eye of God". Besides distinctly resembling the pupil and iris of an "eye in the sky", with the black disk of the moon forming its pupil and the rays and streamers of the sun's corona mimicking the muscle structure of the iris, the totally eclipses sun sometimes distinctly resembles a bird, as may be seen in French astronomer Serge Koutchmy's excellent photograph of the July 11, 1991, total solar eclipse that was published in the May 1992 issue of National Geographic magazine. In fact it was M. Koutchmy's photo that first revealed to me the total solar eclipse's distinct similarity to the pupil and iris of an "Eye of God" and the bird-like form that was readily perceivable in the sun's corona during the 1991 total solar eclipse.

When I noticed this bird-like form in the sun's corona, I intuitively recognized that this was almost certainly the inspiration for the phoenix myth, subsequent research validated that initial intuitive "Eureka moment". Many of the Nazca Lines biomorph geoglyphs represent birds, several of these bird geoglyphs are quite evidenly aligned with the winter solstice sunrise and sunset. In fact Phyllis Pitluga has told me that ALL of the Nazca Lines bird geoglyphs are associated with the winter solstice. If they do not align with it themselves they are closely associated with lines that are solstice alignments. I think we can reasonably propose that these bird geoglyphs that are aligned winter solstice sunrise and sunset strongly support my hypothesis that the Nazca Lines were a religious response to the unusual sequence of total solar eclipses that occurred over Peru between 200 BCE and 600 AD.

My Nazca Lines eclipsology research may be read here -

Michael Brooks
Michael Brooks

If you want to see and investigate the oldest human rock work on the planet, try flying over and then investigating on foot the complete and total terracing of the whole mountain range running from Yemen up to Makah. I did not get the chance to do good dating of the rocks using cracks caused by cosmic rays (X-ray and gamma ray "bubbling" of crystal lattices in the rocks, but I have dated the glass from the Persian Gulf coast near Sufania, Saudi Arabia, and they date from at least 4500 BC. I used the SEM at the University of Arkansas to count the bubbles, by the way. I obtained that rough date from over 40 different glass shards, all found buried just under the sand. Most scholars attribute the glass to the Mesopotamian Empire, but I am positive that both the coastal towns along the Persian Gulf and the mounds and glass on Bahrain predate the so-called "Cradle of Civilization" empires and city states by several thousand years. FYI, there are large burial tombs, used many times over time, especially during epidemics, and towns inland or at the base of all the bays along the Saudi east coast. I have dug up and reburied without disturbing several of the large tombs. My family arrived in Arabia in 1942, and I was born in 1956, and for a decade, my father was General Manager, ARAMCO, for all of NE Arabia. That explains my ability to travel anywhere in the 1960's and 1970's. I was the "Emir's" son. :-) The Bedouins have left these sites untouched for centuries due to their belief that Jinn inhabit the sites. And the Saudi Government, until recently, had no interest in pre-Islamic sites. It was only the work of ARAMCO engineers and managers learning of these sites that has kept them pristine. They will not remain so much longer.

John Stewart-Smith
John Stewart-Smith

@Michael Brooks I spent 1969 to 1978 serving in the Air Force of the UAE, flying jet fighters, reconnaissance fighters and light transports all over the Emirates and adjacent countries. I took thousands of 75mm films of the countryside while surveying for new highways, oil facilities etc. I also took many pictures of shadowy evidence of outlines of quite large buildings in the sands, particularly where Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi meet. Interest was limited locally but I helped to found the Emirates Natural History Group to encourage interest in old history and "present day" wildlife in the UAE. When I returned to the UK I send several thousand original black and white negatives to the UAE for the national archives. These have since been lost.

There is a fascinating history waiting to be uncovered in this area. I hope is it investigated before it is all buried under asphalt and concrete.


John Stewart-Smith 

PS Michael, Have you published any of your findings? Emirates Natural History Group (ENHG) may be interested.


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