Spirits in the Sand

The ancient Nasca lines of Peru shed their secrets.

From the air, the lines etched in the floor of the desert were hard to see, like drawings left in the sun too long. As our pilot cut tight turns over a desert plateau in southern Peru, north of the town of Nasca, I could just make out a succession of beautifully crafted figures.

"Orca!" shouted Johny Isla, a Peruvian archaeologist, over the roar of the engine. He pointed down at the form of a killer whale. "¡Mono!" he said moments later, when the famous Nasca monkey came into view. “¡Colibrí!” The hummingbird.

Since they became widely known in the late 1920s, when commercial air travel was introduced between Lima and the southern Peruvian city of Arequipa, the mysterious desert drawings known as the Nasca lines have puzzled archaeologists, anthropologists, and anyone fascinated by ancient cultures in the Americas. For just as long, waves of scientists—and amateurs—have inflicted various interpretations on the lines, as if they were the world's largest set of Rorschach inkblots. At one time or another, they have been explained as Inca roads, irrigation plans, images to be appreciated from primitive hot-air balloons, and, most laughably, landing strips for alien spacecraft.

Read This Next

Haitians reflect on the past while confronting the future

Chunk of an ancient supercontinent discovered under New Zealand

These mystery stories solve crimes and spark travel

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet