nasca - 27 JULY 2007 VOL 317 SCIENCE www.sciencemag.org 446...

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Unformatted text preview: 27 JULY 2007 VOL 317 SCIENCE www.sciencemag.org 446 CREDIT:DAI For almost a century, scientists have strug- gled to explain one of the best known and least understood ceremonial sites in the world. From 500 B.C.E. until approximately 650 C.E., the Nasca and Palpa valleys, 400 kilometers south of Lima, Peru, were home to a sophisticated culture that created massive designs by rearranging stones on the floor of the Atacama Desert. Ranging from spectacular animal and humanoid figures to trapezoids 2 kilometers across, the hundreds of so-called geoglyphs are easily viewed from the air. Some even suggested early on that the locals must have invented hot-air ballooning in order to create the intricate designs. And theories about their purpose have ranged from the somewhat scientific (astronomical charts, water maps) to the mystical (runways for alien spaceships). Now, a decade-long effort by an interna- tional team of researchers is providing some answers. For archaeologists, the glyphs have been forbidding. So large they’re nearly geo- graphic features, the designs don’t lend them- selves to traditional archaeological methods. “Archaeologists are used to going somewhere, digging, and solving a specific historical prob- lem,” says Markus Reindel of the German Archaeological Institute (DAI), the project’s co-director. “But the geoglyphs are huge objects. They’re fascinating, but too much.” To get a grip on them, the team employed a battery of high-tech equipment including laser scanners, carbon-dating technology, and even a 2-meter-long robotic helicopter. At a meeting last month in Bonn, Germany, Reindel, DAI colleagues, and researchers from Peru, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and elsewhere presented the results of their investigations. The geoglyphs, they reported, unquestionably served a ceremonial function; they were not simply massive pictures on the desert floor. The team members also revealed unprecedented insights into the culture that cre- ated the famous Nasca lines—and the reason for its eventual decline. “It’s an absolutely first- rate project. They’re taking a smart approach to the lines,” says University of California, Santa Barbara, anthropologist Katharina Schreiber. “It’s the first time a section of the Nasca pampa has been subjected to that intensity of study.” Beyond the Chariots of the Gods Although the Atacama region is extremely dry, with less than 0.5 millimeter of rainfall annually, between 1800 B.C.E. and 600 C.E., a progression of cultures culminating in the Nasca harnessed what little water there was to create agrarian societies. And beginning about 500 B.C.E., the region’s people turned their artistic attention to the stony ground, which has a carpet of dark volcanic rocks atop a layer of lighter sand. Moving the top layer of rocks aside created high-contrast designs. It would have been a simple, if labor-intensive, project....
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nasca - 27 JULY 2007 VOL 317 SCIENCE www.sciencemag.org 446...

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