June 29, 2007

Hot air over Nazca

The Nazca LinesThe Nazca Lines are giant etchings in the desert, created by removing rocks from the sand and piling them up to created vast shapes. These include long, straight lines, running for kilometres, triangles and zigzags, as well as the better-known zoomorphic lines, such as the spider, monkey and hummingbird. Impressive enough as giant desert artwork, it is the mystery behind the lines that gives them their enduring appeal (as well as providing documentary makers with a constant supply of film--the BBC seems to have a Nazca special every couple of years!).

The lines were begun over 2,500 years ago, and the Nazca people probably continued to etch them for hundreds of years. However, modern knowledge of the lines only emerged in 1926 with the first flights over the area by Mejía Jespe. The fact that the lines could only be seen and appreciated from the air has led to many theories, some of which can at best be described as very wild.

One of the stranger theories, discarded by most scientists (although it still has its proponents!), is Erich von Daniken's landing strip for aliens, which he details in his book Chariots of the Gods. Another theory, largely discredited, is that the ancient Nazca people built hot-air balloons from which to view the lines. In the 1980s there was even an experiment to test this theory, which resulted in a balloon quickly returning to earth. Many of these theories are based on the fact that it would have been impossible for the Nazca people to draw giant shapes that they were not able to see themselves. This, of course, is nonsense, and even a basic grasp of geometry would be sufficient to create intricate patterns hundreds of metres in size. Nevertheless, there are suggestions that the Nazca people had moveable wooden viewing platforms from which they would have been able to appreciate the figures.
Nazca "Spaceport"An ingenious theory cited by Story is that of the International Explorers Society (IES) of Florida, who suggested that the "chariots of the gods" sailing over Nazca might have been ancient smoke balloons piloted by early Peruvians. This theory was presented in some detail by IES member Jim Woodman in his book NAZCA: Journey to the Sun (1977). Woodman has discovered that the thousands of ancient gravesites around Nazca contain finely woven textiles (suitable for balloon fabric), braided rope, and ceramic pottery. One clay pot has a picture suggesting a hot-air balloon with tie ropes.

It is not generally known that manned balloon flights were recorded in Brazil as early as 1709, when Bartolomeu de Gusmao made his first flight on August 8.

Jim Woodman has actually tested his theory in collaboration with balloonist Julian Nott. They constructed a balloon using the same materials as those available to the ancient Nazcans. The envelope used cotton fabric similar to that in the gravesites; the basket for pilot and co-pilot was woven from native fibers. On November 28, 1975, Woodman and Nott actually flew their balloon (named Condor I) over the Nazca plains.

However, this impressive demonstration hardly settles the mystery of Nazca, since it is not plausible that the Nazcans would have spent centuries constructing these markings for the benefit of occasional balloonists to view from the air. Validation of the theory would require evidence of a religious and cultural milieu in which such balloonists had maintained an elite status for hundreds of years, and it is hardly likely that such balloons would have vanished without a trace.
Nazca LinesIn 1977, Jim Woodman accepted that the Nazca people made the lines themselves, but puzzled over why they would make them so big that they couldn't even seen them. He hypothesized that the Nazca people used hot-air balloons for "ceremonial flights" to view their creations. Woodman attempted to demonstrate the validity of his theory by constructing a hot-air balloon out of the materials that would have been available to the Nazca. Using cloth, rope and reeds, Woodman and his colleagues assembled the balloon then risked their lives on a balloon ride that reached a height of 300 feet. The balloon soon descended rapidly; the balloonists bailed out 10 feet above the desert before it crashed some distance away.

In recent years, the professional skeptic Joe Nickell has demonstrated that the drawings would not have been hard to accomplish with only the tools available to the ancient Nazca. Nickell has also shown that although the size of the figures suggests they were intended primarily for the enjoyment of the gods, the drawings can be appreciated from the ground as well.

The general consensus of archaeologists, anthropologists and scientists is that the Nazca Lines were created by the Nazca people themselves, without help from celestial visitors or aerial views. The figures drawn in the desert correspond with images found in other examples of Nazca art, such as pottery.
Comment:  However the lines were done, they're a remarkable example of Native engineering.


russell said...

Writerfella here --
Even with the evidence of balloon fabric and woven rigging, the fanciful still prefer to reject the explanation of Native hot-air balloon flight, as they would prefer to preserve the 'mystery and mysticism' of Native people. Bushwah...
Mayans knew of the wheel and even built wheeled toys of Caymans and other local animals with which Mayan children played. Yet, little other presence of the wheel is found in Mayan cultures, as there were no large draft animals to make wheeled wagons and carts practicable. Thus, the wheel was a mere curiosity and mostly was ignored. It can be speculated that hot-air flight above the Nazca Plains was performed by priests and persons of high cultural position, for which evidence not necessarily is as readily discoverable or even has been discovered to this time. The fact that materials were found suitable for such a technology does not suggest that it was used only for viewing the finished products, The Nazca Lines. Instead, the logical suggestion is that they were USED TO DIRECT THE ETCHING OF THE LINES over time as offerings to Nazca deities. After the lines were done, the priests buried the balloons and never again dared to trespass on the realm of their gods, the sky itself.
writerfella has that very book, NAZCA: Journey To The Sun, the actual title of which also suggests the above.
All Best
Russ Bates

Rob said...

"Preserve the 'mystery and mysticism' of Native people"? You're the one postulating that they had space-age abilities 2,000 years ahead of their time. Everyone else thinks they had "only" the same scientific and artistic skills as other people. I.e., that they were about as clever and sophisticated as their contemporaries.

From what I read, archaeologists have found materials that could've been used as "balloon fabric and woven rigging," not actual balloon fabric and woven rigging. Big difference.

Do you have any evidence to the contrary? If not, I'll go with the conventional wisdom:

"The general consensus of archaeologists, anthropologists and scientists is that the Nazca Lines were created by the Nazca people themselves, without help from celestial visitors or aerial views."