The desolate pampa is an arid, sun-bleached place and water, or the lack of it, has dominated human life since the first people settled around Nasca in 1000BC. Whether it’s mysterious lines on the desert surface, ancient mummy cemeteries, buried pyramids, museums or watching a local goldsmith at work that appeals to you, there is much to see and experience in and around this desert town.
Many archaeologists and anthropologists believe the unique ‘Nasca Lines’ were a means of connecting with the Gods, appeasing them and asking for rain to fall during times of drought. All traces of Nasca culture, including the distinctive pottery and vibrant textiles, died out around 600AD, when it is believed a fifty year drought was suddenly ended by torrential rain during an ‘El Nino’ year. Evidence of this natural disaster has been found at a pyramid complex under excavation at nearby Cahuachi, which was engulfed by huge mud flows around this time. Excavation work will take many years, but as the pyramids are uncovered, they are providing unparalleled insights into the daily lives of these desert peoples.
At Cantallo to the south, early inhabitants built an ingenious system of subterranean stone aqueducts that are still in use today. These aqueducts, or pukkios, filter water as it descends underground from the Andean Cordillera in the east, towards the sea, and direct it into local reservoirs. Each year, the local Indians have a special ceremony where they bless the Gods for bringing them water, before entering the pukkios through spiralling stone ‘breathing holes’, or aqueducts, to clean and repair them. In 2005, even though there has been no rain for four years, the pukkios still contain water and are vital for irrigation. My guide invited me to climb down and enter a ‘breathing hole’, but after seeing the swarm of mosquitoes above the water surface I declined – that was one experience I could easily say ‘no’ to.
Thirty kilometres away, the desert Cemetery of Chauchilla will satisfy the urges of any traveller to see bones, skulls and mummies in their original environment. Under a bamboo and matting shelter I catch my first glimpse of a bleached white skull with dark, leathery pieces of skin and braids of hair, sitting on a pile of faded grey cloth; and placed in a stone-lined chamber about six feet deep. The mummy is surrounded by carefully placed rows of bones, skulls and even more poignant, a small, melon-shaped ball of greyish cloth to one side, which I’m told is the mummy of a small child – there are several of them around. I later discover that in Nasca culture it was the women and youngest and most loved children in a community, who were sacrificed to the Gods in the hope of bringing rain. New mummies are found daily at many old burial sites, which look like mounds of sand to the untrained eye. They are dug up during the night by emaciated, poverty-stricken people, hoping to find small items of jewellery and gold hidden between the folds of sacking cloth that surrounds the ancient bones. The practice is of course illegal, but poverty and a modern day drought drives them to ignore this, in a desperate attempt to find riches.
The availability of water still dominates life here and whilst Nasca is rightly famous for its enigmatic ‘Nasca Lines’, a wise traveller will take time to explore the area and gain deeper insights into a culture built around the need for preserving this precious resource.