The following is an article from Uncle John’s Unstoppable Bathroom Reader.
(Image credit: Bybbisch94, Christian Gebhardt)
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If you’ve ever heard of the Nazca lines, you have this woman to thank for preserving them for posterity. And if you’ve ever doubted that one person can make a difference, think again…
In 1932, a 20-year-old German woman named Maria Reiche answered a newspaper ad and landed a job in Peru, tutoring the sons of the German consul. After that, she bounced from job to job and eventually found work translating documents for an archaeologist named Julio Tello.
One day she happened to overhear a conversation between Tello and another archaeologist, Toribio Mejia. Mejia described some mysterious lines he’d seen in a patch of desert about 250 miles south of the capital of Lima, near the small town of Nazca. He tried to interest Tello in the lines, but Tello dismissed them as unimportant. Reiche wasn’t so sure. She decided to go to Nazca and have a look for herself.
(Image credit: PIERRE ANDRE LECLERCQ)
Gazing across the desert floor, Reiche was amazed at what she saw: More than 1,000 lines crisscrossing 200 square miles of desert, some as narrow as footpaths, others more than 15 feet wide. Many ran almost perfectly straight for miles across the desert, deviating as little as four yards in a mile.
The lines were made by the early Nazca people, etched into the desert floor between 200 BC and 700 AD. They had created the lines by removing the darkened surface fragments (known as “desert varnish’) to reveal the much lighter stone underneath.
WAITING FOR SUNDOWN
An American archaeologist and historian named Paul Kosok had a theory. At first he thought the lines might be irrigation ditches, but they weren’t large enough or deep enough to transport water. Then he started to wonder if they might have some astronomical significance. So, on June 21, 1941, the southern hemisphere’s winter solstice, he went out to the desert and waited for the sun to set.
Sure enough, when the sun set, it did so at a point on the horizon that was intersected by one of the Nazca lines. The line seemed to serve as an astronomical marker, telling the Nazca people that the first day of winter had arrived.
Kosok had also observed that while most of the Nazca lines were straight, some were curvy. But it wasn’t until he plotted one on a piece of paper, then looked down to see that he had drawn the outline of a giant bird, that he realized some of the lines were drawings. The drawings were so large that they could not be made out by anyone looking at them from the ground.
(Image credit: Flickr user Paul Williams)
With the discovery of the solstice line and the giant bird, Kosok became convinced that the Nazca lines were an enormous astronomical calendar, or, as he put it, “the world’s largest astronomy book,” with each lines carefully laid out to correspond to something in the heavens above. Maybe, he speculated, the giant bird represented a constellation in the night sky. He offered Reiche a job helping him survey the lines so he could prove his theory.
She took the job, and after a few months of tramping across the desert each day with little more than a canteen of water and a pencil and paper to record her observations, she found what she was looking for: a line that intersected with the sun on the southern hemisphere’s summer solstice, December 21. That was all it took- Reiche was convinced that Kosok’s theory was correct. And she would spend the rest of her life trying to prove it.
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At first Reiche could only afford to visit the Nazca lines only occasionally, and because she was German she was not allowed to work at the site at all during World War II. By 1946, however, she was living in Peru year-round and spending nearly all her waking hours in the desert trying to unlock the secret of the lines. When Kosok left Peru in 1948, she continued without him.
Studying the lines wasn’t as simple as it sounds. In those days, many of them were obscured by dirt, sand, and centuries of new desert varnish that it was barely possible to find them. That they were distinguishable at all was thanks only to the fact that they were etched a few inches into the desert floor.
Reiche decided to “clean” the lines so that they could be more easily seen. First she tried using a rake. When that didn’t work, she switched to a broom. It’s estimated that over the next 50 years, she swept out as many as 1,000 of the lines by herself, carefully mapping the location of each one as she went along, and returning to the same lines at different times of day and in all lights to be certain that she was following their true courses.
In the process Reiche discovered -and uncovered- as many as 30 drawings similar to the giant bird that Kosok had found, including numerous birds, two lizards, four fish, a monkey, a whale, a pair of human hands, and a man with an owl-like head. The scope of her work is astonishing: When you look at an aerial photograph of the Nazca lines -any photograph of any of the lines or ground drawings- there’s a good chance that Reiche swept those lines herself. Mile after mile after mile of them, using only one tool- an ordinary household broom.
LOST IN SPACE
Just as Reiche was almost single-handedly responsible for restoring the Nazca lines, she was also the first to bring them to public attention. Her 1949 book Mystery on the Desert helped to generate worldwide interest in the lines.
But what really put them on the map was a 1968 book written by a Swiss hotelier named Erich Von Daniken. His book Chariots of the Gods proposed that some of the lines were landing strips for alien spacecraft. According to Von Daniken’s theory, aliens created the human race by breeding with primates, then returned to outer space. The early humans then etched the drawings into the desert floor, hoping to attract the aliens back to earth.
JOIN THE CROWD
Chariots of the Gods was an international bestseller, and its success perompted other people to write books of their own with more theories about the origin of the lines. One speculated the lines were ancient jogging tracks; another claimed they were launch sites for Nazcan hot-air balloonists. These books turned the Nazca lines into a New Age pop culture phenomenon, helping to attract tens of thousands of tourists to the site each year.
As a result, the Nazca lines began to suffer from overexposure- more and more tourists went into the desert on foot, on dirt bikes, and in dune biggies, doing untold damage to the lines in the process.
Reiche did what she could to protect them. For years she lived in a small house out in the desert so that she could watch over the lines herself, and she used the profits from her writing and lecturing to pay security guards to patrol the desert. By the end of her life she was crippled by Parkinson’s disease, but she continued to study the lines and was known to chase intruders away in her wheelchair. By the time of her death in 1998 at the age of 95, she was nearly deaf and almost completely blind. Not that it really mattered to her- “I can see every line,” she said, “every drawing, in my mind.”
Though Reiche devoted most of her life to proving the Nazca lines are a giant astronomical calendar, that theory has been largely discarded. Researchers now believe that while a few of the lines may indeed point to astronomical phenomena such as the summer and winter solstices (with more than 1,000 lines running across the desert floor in all directions, even that may be a coincidence), most of the lines are processional footpaths linking various sacred sites in the desert. The ground drawings, they believe, are artwork the Nazcans made for their gods.
The article above was reprinted with permission from Uncle John’s Unstoppable Bathroom Reader.
Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you’ll love the Bathroom Reader Institute’s books – go ahead and check ’em out!