Trucker Jainer Jesus Flores Vigo was pedal-to-the-metal, barreling along a section of the Pan-American Highway in Peru in January 2018. But this wasn’t any old section of road – this particular stretch travels through the 290 square miles of the Nazca Lines area. This mysterious site dates back as far as 2,500 years ago, and Vigo was racing through a landscape where time has stood still. But what the 40-year-old trucker did next has astonished and appalled people around the world.
The Nazca Lines are a series of extraordinary giant geoglyphs – monumental designs traced out on the ground – set in remote desert on an elevated plateau. The sacred area is in the south of Peru some 250 miles south of the country’s capital, Lima. This was home to the peoples of the ancient Nazca civilization, and they carved out their enigmatic artworks anywhere between 500 B.C. and 500 A.D. The designs have given the world a fascinating first-hand insight into a lost culture.
The lines themselves were made by scraping into the Nazca desert, moving the reddish gravel that covers the plain. Digging depressions between just four and six inches in depth into the pebbled surface reveals the clay under-bed. This yellowy color is much lighter in tone and the contrast demarcates these incredible giant motifs. One such example is this spectacular spider form pictured here which is some 150-feet long.
The Nazca Desert climate has meant that these lines have been preserved over millennia. The plateau is very dry – one of the most arid of the world’s deserts, it seldom sees any wind and the temperature is an almost constant 77? all year round. The fact that the clay under-bed has a high proportion of lime means that morning mists act to harden it. This daily phenomenon further conserves the lines. The area’s remoteness is also a factor; the inhospitable conditions have meant that footfall from both humans and animals has been minimal down the centuries.
In fact, this incredible open-air ancient art exhibit consists of 70 botanical and animal motifs, 300 geometric designs and some 800 straight lines. And they are vast, indeed, the longest of the figures spans 1,200 feet, while some of the lines are 30 miles long. An early mention of the Nazca art was made by the Spanish conquistador Pedro Cieza de León in his La Chronica del Peru, published in 1554. However, De León mistakenly though the lines were merely way-finder markers.
In modern times, the first methodical survey of the lines was undertaken by Peruvian archaeologist Toribio Mejia Xesspe in 1926. He had first noticed the lines when walking along foothills nearby. But the fact that the lines are best seen from the air meant that they did not come to wider public attention until the advent of flight. Early airplane passengers flying over he area in the 1930s marveled at the markings below them in the Nazca Desert. And they must have been asking themselves one thing – what does it all mean?
Indeed, the biggest mystery about these giant desert designs is what purpose did they have for the people who made them. In 1941 Paul Kosok, an American historian, believed that he had found the answer. The academic was studying the lines, when he noticed that one in particular was in accurate alignment with the setting sun just one day after the winter solstice. This led him to the conclusion that the lines were actually an enormous astronomical guide.
This theory was enthusiastically built upon by Kosok’s assistant, German archaeologist Maria Reiche. She developed the idea that the lines had astronomical significance further. She also felt they could be used as a calendar, and as a result spent some 40 years on the plain divining their meaning. In fact, Reiche was so enamored by these magnificent human artifacts that she built a house at the site and was dubbed “The Lady of the Lines.”
Needless to say, more outlandish theories as to the origins and purpose of the lines came along in the 1960s. Most notably from the eccentric Swiss author Erich van Daniken in his 1969 book Chariots of the Gods? The writer took the fact that the Nazca designs are best observed from the skies and ran with it. Van Daniken asserted that the lines had in fact been constructed under the supervision of aliens. Their purpose was to act as a landing site for extraterrestrial spaceships. To no-one’s surprise, the academic world did not take the out-of-this-world theory seriously.
By the time the 1980s rolled around, some researchers had started to challenge the astronomical ideas of Kosok and Reiche. Johan Reinhard, an American explorer working for National Geographic magazine, theorized that the lines may have been associated with rituals designed to encourage rainfall. This theory, published in his 1988 book The Nazca Lines: A New Perspective on their Origin and Meaning, certainly has some plausibility in a region that sees as little as 20 minutes of rain a year.
However, speaking to National Geographic, Reinhard has since admitted “No single evaluation proves a theory about the lines, but the combination of archeology, ethnohistory, and anthropology builds a solid case.” In other words, we do not yet have a definitive answer as to the purpose of the plateau’s lines. And perhaps we never will.
Von Daniken’s out-there ’60s theories may be bizarre, but his published works have had a big impact on the Nazca area ever since. His books encouraged a boom in tourists arriving in Peru to visit the ancient site. And that was part of the motivation for Maria Reiche to live beside the Nazca Lines – to protect them from damage caused by high visitor numbers.
With this in mind, the Nazca Lines were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994. The preservation of the ancient artworks has been an increasing concern to conservationists. Of course, it is practically impossible to adequately safeguard the huge expanse of desert that the lines cover. Sadly, they will always be vulnerable to acts of thoughtless vandalism.
In fact, one particularly shocking example of such wanton destruction came in 2014. And it was truly scandalous because it came from an entirely unexpected quarter. Given its impeccable conservationist credentials, you might have thought the last people on Earth to knowingly disturb a World Heritage Site would be Greenpeace campaigners.
But you would have been wrong, because this is exactly what happened in December of that year. The crass campaigners trespassed on the site close to the famous hummingbird motif and placed the Greenpeace logo and a slogan next to it. Luis Jaime Castillo, the then Deputy Culture Minister in the Peruvian government, was outraged at the desecration. He told Associated Press, “It’s a true slap in the face at everything Peruvians consider sacred. You walk there, and the footprint is going to last hundreds or thousands of years.”
But the next shocking incident on the Nazca plain would be much more serious than a few well-intentioned but misplaced steps. On January 27, 2018, Jainer Jesus Flores Vigo drove his 12-wheeled rig straight off the smooth asphalt of the Pan-American Highway and on to the desert land containing the Nazca Lines.
Vigo steered his truck across the lines despite the fact that the highway is lined by signs warning drivers not to stray from the road. As this photograph shows, his semitrailer truck has drastically churned up the desert surface. You might expect to see unsightly tire marks like these at a monster truck derby, but not at a revered archaeological site.
The heavy duty vehicle’s wheels defaced an area measuring about 350 by 150 feet and damaged three of the irreplaceable geoglyphs. Vigo was arrested amid scarcely believable reports about his motive. It was alleged that the Peruvian trucker may have been trying to avoid a toll booth further along the road. However, he was later released from court with no penalty. A magistrate decided that there was not enough evidence to indicate Vigo’s incursion on to the ancient site had been a deliberate act.
However, it seems that this may not be the end of the matter for the vandalizing Vigo. The driver has said that he was unfamiliar with the area, but surely the many signs should have alerted him to the importance of where he was. Similarly, he claimed that he was forced to leave the highway because of a mechanical failure, but his truck seemed perfectly capable of traveling for some distance across the lines. Nevertheless, it appears that some prosecutors in the region are still intent on bringing charges against him.
So one of the world’s most intriguing and unique archaeological sites, which has been largely undisturbed for millennia, was badly damaged by one truck driver in a matter of minutes. Whether the incident was indeed an accident, or a cheap attempt to evade a road toll, the outcome for the World Heritage Site is a sorry state of affairs.