Even if you don’t know them by name, you’ll probably recognize the sight. The large, ancient geoglyphs in the Nazca Desert in southern Peru are unique, visually spectacular, and rightly famous. They were designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994.

Believed to have been created by the Nazca culture sometime between 500 BCE and 500 CE, the figures vary in complexity. Some are simple lines and geometric shapes, while more than 70 are zoomorphic depictions of birds, fish, llamas, jaguars, monkeys, and even human figures. There are also some phytomorphic designs, such as trees and flowers.

Casual visitors are not allowed and even those permitted to enter the site must wear special shoes to protect the lines from damage. In order to truly be taken in and enjoyed fully for what they are, visitors can take a plane ride over the lines. From that height, you can enjoy the breathtaking and incredibly complex designs of the images below. They can also be seen from the neighboring foothills, although this isn’t quite the same experience as seeing them from the sky itself.

The purpose of the lines has been debated for a long time, and the two leading theories are that they either have some connection with water or are an ancient method of astronomical measurement. However, both interpretations attribute the lines to having strong religious significance; certainly, their size and design is something meant to be seen by the gods themselves.

Their first mention in print was by Pedro Cieza de Leon in 1553, where they were mistaken for trail markers. Although, as mentioned, they can be seen from the nearby hills, they were first properly distinguished by the Peruvian military and civilian pilots. In 1927, Peruvian archaeologist Toribio Mejia Xesspe spotted them while hiking and brought them up for discussion at a conference in Lima in 1939. Paul Kosok from Long Island University is perhaps the first scholar to officially study the lines. It was he and Maria Reiche, a German mathematician, who first proposed and hypothesized that the lines may be markers on the horizon where the sun and other celestial bodies rose.

In 2011, sandstorms and winds unearthed some new figures, as observed by a Japanese team from Yamagata University. They announced they would set up a research center that would operate there for the next 15 years to study the lines. They have already been working in Peru since 2006 and have found around 100 new geoglyphs.

The Nazca Lines have and always will be of distinct fascination to the rest of the world. They offer an insight into an ancient, gifted, and imaginative civilization and have more than stood the test of time. Even in the modern landscape they are a visible footprint of what humanity can do when we work together and put our minds to a vision. Well worth the pilgrimage to see with your own eyes, the majesty of these huge figures carved into the Earth simply cannot translate into pictures.

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