In the Nazca desert in southern Peru there are hundreds of lines drawn in the ground. These lines were made by removing the top layer of reddish-brown iron oxide-coated pebbles to reveal the yellow-grey subsoil beneath. They are not particularly deep, typically 15 to 30 cm, and most are around a foot wide. They have existed for over two thousand years.
I don’t know when, as a kid, I discovered comic strips, but I wish I did. I wish I could watch myself reading one for the first time, see my face as my eyes passed across the combination of words and images. I think I would have been very stoic, shown more consideration than cheer. I imagine it as a discovery. One where I needed answers, with the only way to find them to dig deeper into this new-to-me medium. Dig, I did.
In 1553 Pedro Cieza de León, a Spanish conquistador and chronicler of Peru, released the first published mention of the Nazca Lines in a book where he mistook them for trail markers. In 1586 another Spaniard chronicler by the name of Luis Monzón wrote of the lines, detailing them as the remains of roads. Peruvian archaeologist Toribio Mejia Xesspe was the first to systematically study the lines in 1926, but it wouldn’t be until the 1930s and 1940s, with the advent of flight, that the lines would finally be revealed for what they were: very large geoglyphs. Up close they are simply furrows in the ground, but when viewed from a distance they reveal themselves to be designs up to a kilometer or more across. In other words, drawings. These drawings vary in complexity. Hundreds are simply lines or geometric shapes, but many others are animals, or plants, or people. It’s often thought that the lines can only be seen from the air. However, a 2007 study that looked at 1,500 drawings in the Palpa region found that each and every geoglyph can be spotted from the ground. We just weren’t looking at them the right way.
The first comic strips I remember reading were Peanuts by Charles M. Shultz. This was almost certainly due to my Dad, who had a large hardcover book on the history of the comic and their author. This book also included the collected works of the comic from the 50s, 60s, and 70s. I never read the long pages of text that detailed Shultz and his work, instead I skipped ahead to those black and white pages of rectangular boxes filled with my favourite characters. It wasn’t long until I began to collect books of my own, sourced mostly from second hand book stores and market stalls. Tattered paperbacks that contained page after page of comic strips. I found many more Peanuts books, but was happy to take whatever I could get; Garfield, Footrot Flats, Hagar the Horrible, Mother Goose and Grimm, The Wizard of Id, B.C., Swamp, and plenty others. I suspect the original draw was probably the jokes, but looking back I realise a lot of the humour would have gone right over my prepubescent head. Add that to that the fact that I would read them all over and over again, to the point that any humour I could get from them would have been lost to repetition. Instead, I suspect it was just part of my quest to understand them.
Erich von Däniken, a swiss author, claimed that the Nazca Lines couldn’t have been made by the Nazca people, deeming them too advanced for the time and tools available. His theory? “Ancient Astronauts”. Or to use the word he was so obviously trying to avoid, aliens. He made this claim despite other scholars theorising that the Nazca people could have used simple tools and surveying equipment to construct the lines, and that archaeological surveys had even found wooden stakes in the ground at the end of some lines. Side fact: One of these stakes was even responsible for showing us the age of the Nazca Lines, through the magic of carbon dating. Not willing to let such a claim stand, prominent skeptic Joe Nickell proved that a small team of people could recreate even the largest figures within days, without any aerial assistance, using tools and technology available to the Nazca people. Scientific American called his work “remarkable in its exactness”.
Eventually, reading the comics wasn’t enough; I had to recreate them for myself. I would choose a figure, let’s say Snoopy, take the small image I could see on the page and try to redraw it larger. Not trace it, mind you, that was very important. I would draw it for myself. Despite the seemingly simplistic nature of the comics, it could take me a long time to redraw one. This was because the dimensions of a character had to be just so or they wouldn’t look right. Draw Snoopy’s nose to thin and it wasn’t Snoopy anymore; it was Smoopy, an off-brand version that straight away you would know wasn’t quite right. I would stare at the small original image, let it fill my vision, try to fix within my mind the exact curve of a single line, and then slowly, oh so slowly, I would attempt to redraw it exactly. I would look at my line compared to the original, realise it wasn’t perfect, erase and try again. Eventually, I would get it right, and when I pulled my vision out from that single line, there it was, the character living on a fresh page, drawn by my hand.
The purpose and significance of the Nazca Lines has never been exactly proven one way or another. There are plenty of theories, including: A link to early irrigation; drawn to please the deities in the sky; a type of astronomy with the lines pointing to places on the distant horizon where the sun and other celestial bodies rose or set; that they were representatives of the constellations themselves, or perhaps counter-constellations, the dark patches in between the stars. Perhaps it was all of these reasons, or none of them.
Peanuts told of a location and period that had little to do with me. A slice of Americana that I never knew nor had any reference for as a boy. I didn’t play baseball, had never punted a football let alone had someone pull it away from me when I tried, didn’t understand Lucy’s psychiatry business, or Schroeder’s love for Beethoven, or Snoopy’s alter-egos Joe Cool and the Flying Ace. Yet I loved the comics all the same. Understanding, it turned out, wasn’t necessary. I saw enough in those black lines that was familiar, that I could relate to. The why wasn’t important. What was important was that I had discovered them in the first place, and that, even though I didn’t do so until many years after they’d first been drawn, something about them still resonated with me.
One of the most amazing things to me about the Nazca Lines isn’t how they were drawn, or even why, it’s how they’ve managed to last so long. Shallow furrows in the ground, and they’ve survived nearly intact for over two thousand years. That’s phenomenal. Think of all the entities that haven’t survived that long. All the empires that have risen and fallen in that time. Entire species of animals lost, not to mention the people who drew the lines in the first place. Think of all that has been discovered or invented or built while those lines in the ground remained etched into the earth, forgotten. The reason? Location. Because of the desert’s particular blend of dry isolation, windlessness, and stable climate, the lines have mostly been naturally preserved. Which brings me to my final question. Did the drawers of the lines know this? Did they expect that centuries upon centuries later groups of people living in a world they wouldn’t recognise would climb into a machine they surely couldn’t even fathom to fly over the land and marvel at their drawings? It seems unlikely.
In recent times the Nazca Lines have been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and labelled as one of the eight wonders of the world, drawing huge numbers of tourists every year.
The precise meaning of the geoglyphs remains unknown. The people who made them are long gone and with them their reasons.
Only the lines remain.