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Nasca Lines

Four hundred and forty kilometers (275 miles) south of the Peruvian capital of Lima, an inhospitable desert is home to a spider, a monkey, a pelican, three hummingbirds, a whale, a dog … and an astronaut.

Ages ago, a mysterious culture etched more than 300 figures and shapes into the barren desert rock outside of the present-day town of Nasca, Peru. No one knows for certain why they did it. The culture that created them vanished into the dusty desert winds, and for centuries the drawings waited alone in the ageless wasteland. These mysterious designs weren’t discovered until the 1920s when they were spotted by pilots of the first commercial flights in the region. Those who ventured into the desert to investigate dubbed them “The Nasca Lines.”

From ground level, the intricate designs appear to be nothing more than a confused jumble of shallow ruts in the sand and rock of the parched desert. When viewed from the air or an observation tower, however, the shape of these drawings—known as “geoglyphs” in the scientific community—becomes apparent. Some of them are massive: one of the hummingbirds measures 123 meters (400 feet) in length. Another line is 65 kilometers long. Some of the figures are geometric, such as trapezoids and triangles, and others represent animals. The “astronaut” is a bulb-headed humanoid with round eyes. Some say the figure represents an alien; others say he’s a man in a space suit. Interestingly, two of the designs, the whale and the monkey, represent animals that are not found anywhere near the lines. Such figures are considered evidence that the makers of the lines were traders or pilgrims … or space aliens.

Like their origins, the exact age of the lines is still unknown. The Nasca culture did live in the region for several centuries (roughly from the first to the ninth century A.D.), but there is no empirical way to date the lines. The recently discovered city of Cahuachi, located nearby, may yet reveal some answers.

Besides dispelling the cloud of mystery surrounding their age and origins, preserving the Nasca Lines is one of the biggest challenges facing Peru today. The elements in the desert are harsh and the lines are naturally eroding. Human intervention, however, is proving much more destructive: advertisers and political campaigns have carved messages in the rock between the designs, and new copper and gold mines are slowly scraping away the remaining integrity of the lines. At nearby Cahuachi archaeological site, grave robbers threaten to loot the recently discovered tombs. The area has recently been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which should help in preservation efforts, and in April 2007 Peru's tourism minister Mercedes Aráoz announced a $2.75 million dollar upgrade of the lines, as well as improved access and greater tourism safety.

If these efforts fail, perhaps the aliens will come back and fix their landing pad.

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