Saturday, 25 October 2014

The Nazca Culture

    The south coast of Peru is home to one of the more famous ancient South American archaeological cultures, the Nazca/Nasca. The reason it's such a celebrated tradition has little to do with its inherent importance in South American cultural history and more to do with the Nazca lines, a set of enormous lines and cartoons found in the desert in the Nazca region, visible from the air and preserved since the ancient period. The lines are truly enigmatic, and their purpose has yet to be firmly established (there are clues in the ethnographic and ethnohistoric record, though). This means, as you might expect, that the lines have been interpreted in frankly pseudoscientific ways. They are a favourite of von Daeniken, Tsoukalos, & co, and have even been featured in an Indiana Jones movie. That's the pop-prehistory super-leagues (in terms of public awareness - it's obviously not a good thing overall). There's much more to the Nazca culture than these dirt scratches, though.
You know with a promo image like this that the movie is going to be an accurate source for pre-Columbian South American history.
    The southern Peruvian coast is exceptionally dry - it is, indeed, one of the driest parts of our planet. This is thanks to the combination of two more or less unbreachable rain shadows: the Andes mountains to the east and the strong winds off the Pacific to the west. This has meant that preservation of artefacts in the Nazca region (and other parts of the coast) is unusually good; archaeologists have managed to uncover both mummies and textiles in excellent condition, in addition to the bold, powerful ceramics that characterise the Nazca tradition (the superb artworks and their preservation are another reason for continued interest in the culture).
The Nazca mummified their dead and placed them in a seated and flexed position wrapped in textiles, like this one. h/t Wiki.
    More brilliant ancient clothworks have been recovered from the Nazca drainage than anywhere else in South America, which is saying something. They are quite dazzling, and especially so when you realise that they are nearly two thousand years old. Most are made from alpaca wool, imported from sites higher in the mountains (probably the Ayacucho area).
A late-Paracas/early-Nazca textile - superb workmanship and presentation. Incidentally, weaving was often a man's art in the Andes - whether this was the case in the Nazca region I'm not sure, but it was a general principle that shocked the Spanish when they arrived in South America.
    Dating the Nazca culture isn't straightforward. For a start, the culture is continuous with the earlier Paracas culture, and the beginning of Nazca is entirely arbitrary: it's the point when ceramics began to painted with polychrome slip instead of resin. This is taken to be the start of the Early Intermediate Period on the southern Peruvian coast, which lasted into the early-mid first millennium CE and began around 200 BCE after a long drought during the preceding Early Horizon.*

     Other dating within the Nazca tradition is based on a classic combination of radiocarbon dates and a ceramic series of seven, eight, or nine phases depending on who you ask. Changes in motifs in each of these phases are generally taken to herald important changes in Nazca society. These phases are complicated by the spatial diversity of the Nazca cultural region, though, and some of the differences in style and motif may have more to do with place than time.
File:Nazca - Lobster Effigy Vessel - Walters 20092055 - Three Quarter.jpg
A Nazca-style ceramic lobster. Wiki.
    This region stretched between the Chincha and Acarí valleys, but the core was between the Ica and Nazca. Michael Moseley, in his superb The Incas and their Ancestors (2001 [1992]), estimates that the entire Rio Grande de Nazca drainage, in which all the sites with Nazca material culture have been found, supported no more than 25,000 people in the ancient period (making my hometown of Chandlers Ford nearly the equal of the entire ancient Nazca population). The early core of the Nazca corporate style (as such things are called in Andean archaeology) was centred on Cahuachi, a ritual-ceremonial centre that was interpreted by earlier generations of archaeologists as a bona fide city. It consists of about four square kilometres of pyramids and out-buildings built on natural outcrops, with some enclosures clearly intended for large but temporary congregations of people. Few people lived at the site, and it probably wasn't the centre of a large Nazca state.

     On the other hand, it has been hypothesised that the spread of the Nazca style over the drainage was enabled by military conquest, and the militaristic motifs of certain phases of the ceramic series - trophy heads, warriors, demons - may have had something to do with the spread of the style itself, especially as the style appears abruptly in some of the valleys. In addition, in the Acarí valley, 'the sites where Nazca ceramics appear all became urban and fortified', according to Karen Olsen Bruhns' Ancient South America (1996:199).
File:Tropähenkopf Nazca Slg Ebnöther.jpg
An actual Nazca trophy head. Note the cord protruding from the poor chap's forehead. The existence of such heads corroborates the militaristic motifs of the ceramic style.
     Given that Cahuachi's dominance (cultural, military, or otherwise) probably lasted only a couple of centuries in the early Nazca phases, it's hard to tell if this indicates conquest or tit-for-tat violence between groups with shared ceramic traditions. Bellicose designs appear in Phases 5 and 6, quite late in the sequence (and with some apparent influence from the Moche, a northern coast culture famed for the celebrations of violence in their plastic arts).

     There is a broad division in the ceramic sequence. Phase 1 'preserved the mythical content of Paracas art, but introduced realistic subject matter in the form of birds, fish, and many kinds of fruit', as Michael Moseley puts it (2001:197), which says something about the arbitrary nature of the Paracas/Nazca division. Phases 2 through 4 are generally lumped together and considered to represent the Nazca 'Monumental' style: images are polychrome, simple, and bold, set against monochrome red or white backgrounds - plants, animals, demons, and people all make appearances. (The Monumental styles are, incidentally, some of my favourite ceramic styles, and I'd honestly love to have some useable replicas for my kitchen - someone get on this.)
An example of the early Nazca 'Monumental' style, in the V&A in London. h/t Wiki (as ever with these things).
    Nazca 5 is innovative, including such new motifs as disembodied heads of men and demons. Phases after 5 are considered 'Proliferous', as the ceramics' backgrounds became filled in with copious cluttering rays and dots 'in a process of greater elaboration and abstraction, perhaps a "mythification" of the subjects', as Bruhns put it. This style continued until the end of the Nazca culture, some time in the mid-late first millennium CE. Ceramics with Nazca 8/9 motifs have returned C14 dates of late into the 8th century CE, and this seems to be about the end of the Nazca culture as it is generally thought of. (See here for a useful overview of the Nazca/Nasca ceramic tradition.)
A later 'Proliferous' vessel - note the stars, dots, little toadstool shapes - from the Brooklyn Museum. Wiki.
    Fishing has clearly been vital for the existence and persistence of Peruvian south coast communities from the earliest times up to the present, and the Nazca seem to have taken to the sea in flimsy seal-skin boats. Some of their art refers to the sea, or uses products from it, and one of the more prominent motifs on Nazca ceramics is the Killer Whale (likely representing a shark, despite the name). Killer Whale probably represented a deity, and perhaps a Lord of the Fishes, one whose role included ensuring a bountiful catch (such roles are divined from common ceramic and textile motifs, sometimes combined with inferences made on the basis of ethnohistoric documents).
'Horrible Bird' motif on a vessel: the Horrible Bird was probably based on a condor, and is usually interpreted as a deity or supernatural being. h/t Dumbarton Oaks.
    Sharks would have been very visible and frightening creatures to Nazca fishermen, so such a role makes sense in the context of coastal Peruvian experience. Incidentally, an excavation by Jeffrey Quilter at the coastal Ecuadorian site of Paloma recovered the body of a man who had been killed by a shark - although it was dated to around 5500 BP, so not necessarily relevant to this much later era.

    Other deities included Spotted Cat, almost certainly descended from a feline deity of the Paracas period and normally found in the context of fruits and abundance, and Horrible Bird, commonly associated with trophy heads and war (as was Killer Whale).

File:Orca mitica nasca.jpg
Killer Whale - a famous piece from the Larco Museum in Lima, Peru. This is a collectable item in one of the Tomb Raider games, another indication that Nazca art is famous beyond its relatively humble origins.
    The Nazca left no written records, in common with every other pre-Columbian population in South America. Prehistorians are pretty clueless about what language they spoke. There's a hypothesis in Silverman and Proulx's The Nasca that placename evidence could indicate that at the very least the creators of Nazca objects spoke a distinct language from the peoples around them. But given that the language is unknown from other sources; that the Inka, who later ruled the Nazca drainage, imposed Runa Simi ('Quechua') on their subjects; and that Spanish has taken over from Runa Simi as the imperial language of western South America, it's unlikely that we'll ever see more of the Nazca language than tantalising glimpses.

     As for the lines: there's no reason whatsoever to invoke supernatural or extraterrestrial agency in their conception or execution, no matter how mysterious the motives behind their creation are. Technologically they're simple; the dark desert floor is apparently easily scrubbed away, revealing lighter ground beneath. Their preservation over such a long period may be ascribed to the extremely low level of precipitation of the Peruvian coast. And it would be reasonably easy to create images like the spider below without aircraft, using cordage to make an outline with accurate proportions based on a smaller image. I don't see any need to invoke supernatural agency here.

    It's important to note that such geoglyphs and images inscribed in the desert floor are and were not exclusive to the Nazca culture, apparently occurring into the late-prehistoric/prehispanic period and practiced in a similar (but less visible and photogenic manner) by Aymara speakers higher in the hills. The 'Nazca lines' depict objects and animals that the Nazca were familiar with in styles that they used on other media. It should be assumed that the Nazca people made them, and for purposes consistent with their indigenous culture rather than (literally) alien impetus.
It takes a special kind of mind to see an image like this, of an anatomically-inaccurate spider, and assume that it's extraterrestrial. Wiki.
    So what are they for? There's no reason to assume that they were built for astronomical purposes, let alone to provide guidance for alien spacecraft, as Tsoukalos suggested on Ancient Aliens. It's possible that they were ceremonial walkways - ritual paths to sites of cosmic significance, including origin sites (slightly unusual places considered to be part of the story of humankind by the Nazca). The evidence for this is equivocal.

    There's a theory that they map underground water reserves and tracks, associated with the puquios (underground irrigation channels) that may have supplied the Nazca people with water in their otherwise dessicated environment. I say 'may have' because it's possible these channels are post-Columbian, and not Nazca at all - and in any case it's hard to show that the lines were an attempt to map water flows even if the entire system happens to be pre-Inka. Most scholars believe the puquios are from the Nazca period, but there's little evidence to go on.

     In any case, I'm more interested in what it would have been like to be a person in ancient southern Peru than in solving a mystery of primary interest to pseudoscientists. Surrounded by desert and on the edge of the world's biggest ocean, eating a marine diet from delightful crockery, taking the heads of enemies in skirmishes fought with slings and atlatls, importing wool and dried meat from the hills, worrying about the sharks as the seal-skins hit the surf - I find that much more worth my time contemplating than von Daeniken's pseudomystery.

*A 'Horizon' in Andean cultural history is the time when one or more cultural traditions were dominant over a large area, and an 'Intermediate Period' is when greater fragmentation is evident in the archaeological record. It's a fairly useful way of thinking about the pre-Columbian Andes, but the schemes are pretty arbitrary (except for the Late Horizon in the late-15th century when the Inka took over almost the entirety of the Andes).

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