In Peru, Learning from the Nasca
Finding parallels between the demise of an ancient culture and contemporary environmental challenges
In early April I felt like I’d entered a time warp. I had been immersed in writing a novel set in sixth century Nasca on the coast of Peru, a period filled with decades of drought and natural disasters, and every time I looked up from editing, a new calamity had struck the modern coast of Peru.
Water service in Lima had been cut off for five days a few weeks ago as a result of debris and flooding in the Rimac River, which supplies water to most of the city. People with cisterns and tanks made it through by rationing, but many of metropolitan Lima’s 11 million residents had to scramble to get water, waiting in lines, finding friends willing to share. Store supplies were emptied on the first day. Water trucks delivered overtime. Meanwhile, severe flooding and mudslides, or huaicos, were wreaking havoc in smaller cities north and south of Lima.
Photo by Joeke-Remkus de Vries
Unseasonal rainstorms have been pelting the inland mountains since January. More than 300 bridges collapsed across the country, isolating entire communities. Roads were washed away. Schools stayed closed. Major cities like Piura, Trujillo, and Ica were under water. River-beds that had been dry for decades were overrun by uncontainable furies of water. More than 1.1 million people had been affected. This time it’s not due to the familiar weather anomaly, “El Niño” that results from major ocean currents arriving warmer than usual. (El Niño-Southern Oscillation, or ENSO, was given the Spanish nickname for the “Christ child” because it often arrives around Christmas.) This time it is not due to its opposite, either. “La Niña” events happen when unusually low water temperatures distort weather patterns. Instead, the current disasters were being blamed on a rare “Niño Costero,” an unusual warming of waters close to Ecuador and northern Peru that creates extreme precipitation.
The first response to the severe flooding was chaos, panic, and frustration with the inadequate support and failing infrastructure, though the government, development organizations, businesses, and the general public have been working overtime to get services to people whose lives have been devastated. But another response has been the outpouring of compassion. A video of a mud-covered woman emerging from a vortex of debris went viral and her image has become a symbol of survival and perseverance around the world. Swept out of her home and carried three kilometers by a sudden huaico, Evangelina Chamorro survived the ordeal, appearing like a shapeshifter out of the ooze.Watching her rise and make her way to shore called to mind Andean tales of how ancient gods created the first humans out of mud.
Five thousand years ago, scattered settlements in South America were evolving into organized societies. The remains of ceremonial centers and ritual offerings show evidence of the importance that early cultures gave to honoring the world they lived in and the forces around them. Mountains were sacred, not only as the source of water, but as the place where the divine gave voice through thunder, lightning, wind, and weather. Those who lived in the highlands experienced nature’s extremes — rain and hail, sleet and snow, sun and shadow. Those who lived on the coast relied on the waters that made their way from the hills to sustain life under the unrelenting sun.
On the southern coast, the Paracas Penninsula gave rise to a culture that extended throughout the Ica region by 500 BC. The Paracas culture is best known for elaborate textiles, dramatic iconography, multi-colored pottery, deep burial chambers with mummies, and intentionally elongated skulls — many which show evidence of successful cranial surgery (trepination). By around 200 BC, the Nasca (also spelled Nazca) style of pottery emerged, with its characteristic smooth polish and added colors. The Paracas culture faded as the Nasca flourished, especially in the Rio Grande drainage region.
The Nasca culture peaked between 200 and 500 AD, producing amazing ceramics and textiles and developing impressive water systems by tapping underground aquifers. Today, the Nasca are best known for the enigmatic figures and lines stretching across the dry flatlands between hills. The “Nasca Lines” were created by removing the oxidized surface rocks to reveal lighter earth beneath. At ground level, they are hard to spot, but from the air, their size and profusion can take the breath away. Because there is no rain, most are still intact centuries later, delighting visitors and inspiring the imagination. Some, however, do show damage caused by runoff from the hills during major El Niño events in the past.
The Nasca disappeared around the eighth century AD, after thriving for 800 years. Common lore says the culture’s collapse was brought on by huaicos after a prolonged drought. I immersed myself in the archaeology and anthropology of the Nasca region to learn more about what else might have contributed to the demise of a society that had prospered for so long.
I have more questions now than when I began. But what I learned along the way reinforced my concerns about current global issues and the state of our environment. Issues of resource management and ecology have always influenced how societies develop, change, evolve, and sometimes fall apart. Some of the same conditions that tipped the balance for the Nasca are happening again now globally. Yet many refuse to see we are in danger of sliding blithely past our own tipping point.
The first time I came to South America, I was enchanted by Peru’s lush mountain forests, by the high sierra flanked by soaring ice peaks, by the tropical rainforests and even by the stark stretches of arid coastline. The first time I looked out over the barren Paracas Penninsula on the southern coast on the way to Nasca, there was not even a glimpse of plant-life. I tried to imagine what it would be like to live there, but my skin shriveled at the mere thought. As if it would mummify right there on the spot.
As a native of the lushly wooded Pacific Northwest, I never expected that I would one day settle in a desert. Yet, I married a desert-raised Peruvian and moved to Lima a few years later. I fell under the spell of desert landscapes, dunes, and oases. I enjoyed imagining ancient times, the interface between the people of the desert valleys and the caravans arriving from the high Andes, bearing wares and medicines from jungle and mountain and the length of the coast. Like so many others, I became captivated by the depth and breadth of Peru’s history and mystery — the wealth and diversity of its resources. Lima, on the usually rainless coast of Peru, has now been my home for almost 20 years. Intrigued by all the theories, the legends, and the hydrological feats of the past, I was inspired to set a novel in ancient Nasca.
Situated on the southern coast of Peru near rivers that run through one of the world’s most arid deserts, the modern day city of Nasca lies some 450 kilometers south of Lima in the shadow of Cerro Blanco, the highest sand dune in the world, a sacred site for the ancient Nasca. Until recently, it was commonly thought that natural disasters and weather anomalies had caused the collapse of the Nasca culture, even though they had survived similar phenomena many times over the course of centuries. To survive the recurring droughts, they developed effective ways of getting water from underground sources. They had canals for channeling heavy runoff from the mountains. They left food stored in the temples. So, what made the final events different?
According to David Beresford-Jones, of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at Cambridge University, the Nasca had cut down too many trees. Expanding agriculture, especially maize and cotton, meant cutting into forests of huarango, a leguminous tree considered the "keystone species" for the arid environment of Peru's coast. The huarango enhances soil fertility and moisture, features extensive root systems that tap subterranean waters as much as 60 meters below the surface, and provides highly nutritious pods — forage for livestock as well as the basis of syrups, beverages, and flour for humans. It also offers premium hardwood for tools, construction, and slow burning heat for kilns.
Beresford-Jones’s research confirms that the huarango forests along the desert valleys were thinned or removed — possibly to increase lucrative cotton production. According to the research, losing that habitat tipped the tenuous balance to the point of no return. There were no more forests to slow the raging huaicos, no groves to catch and anchor the overflow, no sediments to moisten parched riverbeds and provide new soil — rich nurseries for the next generation of saplings. Instead, everything in the huaico’s path was swept away. “A mega-El Niño may have pushed Nasca society across a tipping point, [but] its impact would have been far less devastating had the forests that protected the fragile desert ecology of these riverine oases not already been cleared," Bresford-Jones writes.
There is no term in English that adequately encompasses the full sense of a huaico. Common translations vary between mudslide, landslide, and avalanche. But it is also a flash flood, a dry river-bed suddenly filled with unimaginable debris gathered on the way down the mountain. Sometimes mostly water, sometimes mostly stone, sometimes pure mud carrying broken homes, they are endemic to Peru’s terrain, where the towering Andes divide the arid western coast from the Amazon jungle that falls away from the eastern slope. Mountain rains send rivers down both sides, running west through the narrow valleys to the Pacific, and east into the Amazon and the Atlantic.
Without any writing system left behind to guide us, we can only speculate about how the Nasca functioned as a society; why they bound their heads to form elongated skulls; why they used mummified heads for offerings and rituals; why they created such a profusion of lines, etched like palimpsests across the desert; how they used the visionary brews and traditions of the Chavin before them; how they found and tapped the network of underground aquifers; and perhaps most importantly, why they cut down so many trees. Archaeologists, anthropologists, hydrologists, and historians have gathered much evidence and intriguing theories, but we still have to wonder how it all came about, and how the avoidable could have been avoided.
Had the Nasca drifted into an increasingly precarious situation because of overconfidence from their previous successes? Were the highlanders encroaching, clearing trees to access the fertile lowland soil, unaware of the ecosystem’s need for trees to anchor the floodplains? Had anyone resisted the process of expanding agricultural production into forested areas? Did anyone realize the danger? Had the population simply exceeded what the land could sustain, or did an increase in trade with other regions create such a demand for Nasca cotton that producers could not resist? Were the Nasca making calculated decisions about land use, or did they merely drift over the line?
When I first discovered that there had once been huge forests of huarango trees in the region, it was hard to believe. When I found out that huarangos could live more than a thousand years, and that some ancient trees were still alive, I set out to visit three of them. Each gnarled, massive, elderly tree had lived more than a thousand years. I marveled at their endurance. The oldest one was hidden in a small canyon amid the dunes a couple hours west of Nazca. On the way, we passed ancient graveyards littered with whitened skulls and bones from tombs that had been looted. Those eerie expanses, however, were not nearly as disturbing as the scarred landscape that greeted us before the final descent into the canyon. Nothing but charred stubs remained of a grove of trees that had been cut in its entirety to be made into charcoal. The canyon was still safe. The tree was stunning. New saplings were thriving under the care of a reforestation project.
Hoping to help protect what trees were left, I worked with a friend, Peruvian documentary filmmaker Delia Ackerman, to make a short film about the historical, biological, and cultural importance of the huarango (Prosopis limensis). Known in the south also as guarango, and in the north as algarrobo (prosopis pallida). As we interviewed people, we came to understand why so many referred to it as “The Tree of Life.” Literally and symbolically, it is the axis mundi, the axis of the world, the meeting of upper and lower realms. A vehicle of transformation, turning soil, water and sun into life-sustaining fruit, wood for fuel, tools, and building. All that, plus havens of shelter from the harsh sun and wind.
Despite reforestation efforts during the last decade, a charcoal industry mafia has been taking down trees faster than restoration projects can grow them. There are more laws against cutting and illegal harvest than there are people to enforce them. I met one farmer who caught someone stealing his trees. The perpetrator had already cut down 100 trees, and even admitted to being hired to do so, but by the time his employer got him out of court, they walked away with nothing more than a $20 fine. No one gets jailed for illegal cutting.
Last year, I received the news that the ancient tree in the canyon was gone. Charcoal sells better than ecology.
Today, we know the importance of trees and the risks of losing the planet’s lungs, the risks of erosion, the loss of habitats. Science has spelled out the dangers, and yet too few seem to share the sense of urgency. All around the world there are those who don’t care, don’t believe, or simply don’t want to give up their profits. If we are going to continue seeing more weather anomalies with greater destructive power, the cost of not doing anything could be catastrophic.
It’s hard not to notice parallels with contemporary global environmental issues. The longer I live in Peru, and the more I learn about the past, the more I feel the need to spread the word about pre-Inca cultures, about the loss of forests, and about the current challenges. Ancient Andean cosmology is infused with the deep spirituality of Earth-honoring peoples for whom the landscape itself is alive. In cultures based on reciprocity and the expression of gratitude, there is greater balance. One does not take without giving back. When we receive gifts from the earth, we should give something back to the earth. Modern culture does not tend to see the earth’s resources quite the same way. Businesses measure cost vs. revenue, but don’t calculate the many unseen costs, the ones that our descendants will pay for. Not enough business think about giving back, let alone showing gratitude for the earth’s gifts.
Though the human species has had a relatively short role in the planet’s history, it is the species that has had the greatest negative impact on its environment. Sadly, our tale is primarily one of survival and predation so successful that it has already resulted in the extinction of numerous species. The irony is that, at this rate, if the human relationship to the planet does not change, we could very well become the cause behind our own extinction.
I was fascinated by the Nasca, in part, because they seemed to have a good balance with nature for a long time before the deforestation. Their art is a celebration of living things, of plants and animals, of growth, fertility, flowering and abundance. What started as mere curiosity about the past became an obsession. I was captivated by the Nasca landscape. Following clues left by people who had lived there almost fifteen centuries ago, I explored gullies and peaks, waterways and coastlines. But I kept coming back to the lines in the pampas. Ritual paths. Huge trapezoids, long lines disappearing into the horizon, geometric patterns, plant and animal shapes. that enters and finally exits without ever crossing. Dozens of theories have been presented to explain their purpose, from alien landing strips to sports events or clan gatherings. Some mark underground water routes, some point to soltice sunrises. Although many Andean scholars suggested that the lines were walked on during ceremonies and rituals, it was only recently that technology helped to confirm the theory. Using magnetometry, German scientists Dr. Jörg Fassbinder and Tomasz Gorka were able to gather evidence that paths had been packed down from wear. They also discovered structures buried under trapezoids and traces of geoglyphs beneath geoglyphs, layered like palimpsests where people had created new figures over old ones.
The visceral experience of following the curves, one foot after the other pressing into the earth, opens one to a connection, not only with others who might be walking the line, but to a personal dance with the earth. The walking or creating of lines became an important part of the novel I was writing. Groups work together to create shapes for special occasions, honoring the landscape with the gift of their attention. They orchestrate candlelight processions and dances, ceremonies of gratitude and wedding celebrations, and make pilgrimages to anchor their hopes and intentions, their dreams and prayers. The novel’s heroine, Patya, walks the path of her totem spirit animal when she is troubled, breathing prayers into each step as she seeks guidance from Orca, Matriarch of the Sea. When her brother is lost in a coma, she chants her way along his favorite path, the monkey line, to call him back with Monkey’s help. She makes a new line with her family in a ceremony of farewell before embarking on her final journey, knowing that her family will return to the line after she is gone. The line will always connect them across place and time.
I also walk that line myself, more than a thousand years later, savoring its timelessness.
I have scraped my own versions of the Nasca Lines across wet sands on wide beaches. I have walked them in my mind and have doodled them in journals. I often find myself sketching variations on the Tree, one of the smaller lines easily visible from a viewing tower next to the Pan-American Highway. A good reminder of our relationship to the earth, I use the tree figure as a meditation. I enter the shape — whether on paper, in my mind, or on a beach — from a line that marks the surface of the ground then turns downward, into the first root. With each of the five roots, as I descend I think with gratitude of all that nourishes, whether water or soil, family or friends, work or art. With each turn upward, I bring back something — to feed the tree, to feed me, to feed our community. I walk a metaphor for the gathering and manifesting of resources. When I reach the trunk, I feel the anchoring of the core as I walk, letting it center me and process the exchange between the below and the above, consolidating and strengthening, preparing for the manifestations to come. When I step out into the first branch and imagine the sun and sky and the cycle of growth that brings fruit into the world, I also think of the things I want to manifest in my own life. Each of the seven branches is an opportunity to revisit what we value and what we wish to create in the world. A great metamorphosis is made possible by water and light through the vessel of the earth. When the line returns to the ground, the horizon, I exit, more centered, more aware, more ready to turn metaphor to action. To manifest the metaphor-morphosis.
The lines left behind by the Nasca are reminders that they once took the time to dance with the earth. Ritual and ceremony offer a space for reflection, and for community. Right now, I am busy helping with the response to Peru’s emergency. But when the rains stop and the mud settles, I will find a place to create some new lines with kindred spirits — a place to walk, to dance, to remember, to re-group and to re-charge.
Then we will return to the pressing tasks at hand. In Peru, among other things, it will mean re-building with greater attention to disaster risk prevention. It will mean strengthening health and education services, providing access to clean water, creating more equity in water distribution between communities and industry, and greater focus on managing, protecting, and regenerating our forests.
It seems to me that the rest of the world might need to do the same.