Thursday, February 18, 2010

In Search of.... The Nazca Lines

The Nazca Lines are a series of massive drawings made centuries ago in the desert floor of a high Peruvian plateau. Some are just straight lines.  Others are elaborate, swirling line drawings of spiders, or monkeys, or hummingbirds. The largest of them are up to 200 meters (660 feet) across.  They were originally made by the indigenous Nazca people between 200 BC and 700 AD, by removing the reddish pebbles that still coat the desert floor there, revealing the white ground underneath.  Despite being "discovered" again in the 1920s, the Nazca Lines remain somewhat enigmatic, even today, in part because they are so large that they cannot be properly viewed from the ground.  And yet the Nazca people would presumably not have had the technology to view them from the sky, like the aerial photo above taken from an airplane.

Today the Nazca Lines are referred to formally as "geoglyphs" and are widely believed to have been made by the Nazca for religious reasons, perhaps the worship of deities related to mountains or other sources of water.  But when I first heard of the Nazca Lines in 1977, on one of the very first episodes of Leonary Nimoy's  In Search of,  they were characterized as ancient runways for alien spacecraft, a theory first popularized by the author Erich von Daniken in his 1968 book Chariots of the Gods.  Despite being roundly dismissed by scholars as entirely baseless, von Daniken, who is still alive, continues to advocate his theory that space aliens helped ancient peoples across the world build their most impressive monuments.  When I was 7 years old, I found this possibility incredibly compelling.

I mention all of this because yesterday I saw a teaser for an upcoming TV program about the Nazca Lines that will apparently premier this Sunday on the National Geographic Channel. I'm sure I'll watch it.  But it seems to take a much more serious, "down to earth" approach to the subject, a presentation style that couldn't be more different from that of the In Search of episode I saw as a boy. ("Huge drawings are etched in the ground," Leonard Nimoy began that episode of In Search of by saying. "They make sense only when viewed from a great height.  Miles of what look like modern runways score the desert. If they were, what manner of craft landed here?  Who were the pilots?  We are conditioned to think that flight is the province of modern man. Perhaps we are latecomers to the sky...") In stark contrast, the National Geographic Channel website about this program addresses this possibility with considerably less, ahem, enthusiasm.  "Needless to say," it intones dismissively, "archaeologists and other scientists have found no evidence to suggest that aliens visited the Peruvian desert or were responsible for construction of the lines."

In case you, too, might like to get a feel for how jarring this difference in style (and substance) really is, I have embedded below the first 10 minutes of that In Search of episode, and then just below that a 2 minute segment from this upcoming National Geographic Channel program.

I grew up as a kid in the 1970s, in an era before cable television.  I would have loved the Discovery Channel and History Channel back then, I'm sure.  But on reflection I'm happy that I grew up in a time with just a little more ambiguity and fewer conclusive, scientific answers. Where Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster were merely elusive (tantalizingly so), not proven frauds; and where the Nazca Lines were an ancient spaceport, waiting patiently for the return of our alien overlords, not shallow lines carved in the desert sands by an ancient people using only wooden pegs and cotton twine to guide them.

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