Ancient Peruvians Created Geoglyphs To Guide Travelers At Night

By Matthew Mientka on May 7, 2014 9:43 AM EDT

A new discovery about ancient geoglyphs in Peru suggests the Paracas of 800 to 100 B.C. used massive markings to organize trade and social gatherings. Photo courtesy of Patrick Nouhailler CC BY 2.0.
A new discovery about ancient geoglyphs in Peru suggests the Paracas of 800 to 100 B.C. used massive markings to organize trade and social gatherings. Photo courtesy of Patrick Nouhailler CC BY 2.0.

A trip to the desert floor for winter solstice must have seemed magical to ancient night time travelers in the Chincha Valley of southern Peru.

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Small bands of people from the Paracas culture of about 800 to 100 B.C. there built massive markings on the earth and stone -- geoglyphs -- to guide travelers to gatherings for trade and socializations. Descending from the surrounding hills, they followed pathways of swept limestone luminescent in the moonlight.

"They're converting this landscape into a big theater, and the ultimate goal is to bring people together to market, exchange goods, manufacture goods, exchange marriage partners, gossip, do all the things people like doing," archeologist Charles Stanish told Science Now. "And then they're competing with each other to bring in the most supporters."

Stanish led a research team from the University of California at Los Angeles to study a 30-square-kilometer area with numerous mounds and settlement ruins, in addition to 71 "geoglyphs." Using a GPS to plot the sites for the first time, the researchers gleaned a new picture of life for the ancients there. Groups of geoglyphs pointed to specific ruins like signage on a modern highway. But interestingly, the geoglyph groups each pointed to different ruins, suggesting a competition among distinct tribes to draw trade and support.

The Paracas made two types of geoglyphs, Stanish and co-authors reported this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. White lines swept through the soil atop the bright limestone created an ancient roadway guiding visitors from long distances. Once closer. geoglyphs created with rocks formed new guidelines to bring them on home.

Stanish says the discovery of these geoglyphs provides an inkling of how social groups organized prior to the development of complex governments. Yet perhaps the most interesting aspect of this cultural exploration might be the mystical significance of the findings.

"A striking feature of this culturally modified landscape is that the geoglyph lines converge on mounds and habitation sites to form discrete clusters," Stanish wrote in the study. "Likewise, these clusters contain a number of paired line segments and at least two U-shaped structures that marked the setting sun of the June solstice in antiquity."

Still, some archeologists despute Stanish's conclusion that the Paracas lived as a distinct people from their predecessors, the Nazca, whose geoglyphs consisted of markings depicting humans and animals. Environmental historian Ingmar Unkel from Kiel University in Germany says the geoglyph-making societies, though separated by centuries, shared much overlapping culture. This recent discovery about the Paracas, he wrote in National Geographic, "finally [gets] rid of the esoteric aura which surrounded the 'Nazca Lines' in public perception during much of the last century."

Indeed, thousands of geoglyphs dot the entire Andean region in remembrance of cultures distributed through land and time.

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