BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

24 September 2014
Science & Nature: TV & Radio Follow-upScience & Nature
Science & Nature: TV and Radio Follow-up

BBC Homepage

In TV & Radio

Contact Us

You are here: BBC > Science & Nature > TV & Radio Follow-up > Horizon

The Lost City of Nasca
BBC2 9:30pm Thursday 20th January 2000

MonkeyNARRATOR (SAM WEST): On a barren desert in South America is one of the greatest archaeological wonders of the world. Etched in the surface of the pampa are hundreds of straight lines, geometric shapes and the images of animals and birds. These are the Nasca lines, built by the Nasca people, but why they were created has defied explanation. Now archaeologists have begun to uncover the lost world of the line builders. These new discoveries could, at last, solve one of the great puzzles of the ancient past.

In 1983 Italian archaeologist Giuseppe Orefici began a long-term project to investigate the Nasca. Every year he brings a team of specialists to South America for 3 intensive months of excavation. Orefici has concentrated on one remarkable Nasca site, an ancient city called Cahuachi. He is convinced that this mysterious place is the key to understanding the line builders. Today Cahuachi resembles a range of low-lying hills. It's hard to believe that this was once a magnificent city.

GIUSEPPE OREFICI (Director, Nasca Project): The Great Temple is under our feet. Here we are on the great platform which was used for a long time. It was one of the main structures at Cahuachi. We have to imagine this platform with columns and roofs and great steps and with hidden rooms inside. But then everything was destroyed.

NARRATOR: The Cahuachi site is huge, extending across 370 acres. The most impressive monument is this 30 metre high pyramid which dominated the ancient city. It was built by modifying a natural high point in the land. As well as the pyramid, there were 40 other structures, each sculpted from the landscape itself and enhanced by massive mud brick adobe walls. Extensive plazas and terraces once covered the land here, nearly 2,000 years ago. Cahuachi lies 75 kilometres inland from the coast of Peru. It was built on the edge of the desert plateau, called a pampa, bounded by two lush river valleys. This was the home of the ancient Nasca people. North of Cahuachi is the pampa and the Nasca lines.

They were first spotted when commercial airlines began flying across the Peruvian desert in the 1920s. Passengers reported seeing mysterious primitive landing strips on the ground below. No-one knew who had built these remarkable wonders of the Ancient World, or why. There are more than 800 uncannily straight lines, some running for many kilometres. There are spirals and other geometric shapes and trapezoidal spaces covering many square metres. Most remarkable is a desert zoo - a monkey with a curved tail, a spider and a humming bird.

What connected the Nasca lines with the lost city of Cahuachi? The site was first excavated in the 1950s and was thought to be the centre of an expansionist military empire, but in the 1980s archaeologists like Giuseppe Orefici began to overturn these ideas. They could find no evidence for a bustling urban centre and certainly no sign of military activity. Instead, the city seemed to have been dedicated solely to ritual and ceremony.

This year Orefici and his team plan to test the theory against the archaeological evidence. All these finds are clues to the kind of place Cahuachi was in ancient times, but Orefici and his team face bitter competition - from tomb-robbers. Nasca artefacts fetch fabulous prices and Cahuachi has become one of the most looted sites in the world. Everywhere the bones of the people who once lived here lie scattered. The tomb-robbers have stripped them of anything of value. For the archaeologists it's a disaster. The Cahuachi dead have been robbed of their identities.

GIUSEPPE OREFICI: It's the material left behind by the tomb robbers - pieces of cloth and cord, more textiles. There are hundreds and hundreds of these. All the material that is left here is material that, for archaeologists, would be essential when reconstructing this people's history and everything is destroyed. The tomb-robbers will never stop. Look at this, for example. It's very nice - a multicoloured ceremonial sling but the tomb-robbers aren't interested in it. They're interested in pottery and good pieces of cloth which they can sell internationally

NARRATOR: It's been estimated that 5,000 tombs have been looted at Cahuachi. The site is potmarked by the tomb-robbers' work.

GIUSEPPE OREFICI: Information is lost every day. A page of history is lost every day which can never be reconstructed. But the place is so vast that our work is still useful in recovering at least some information and we hope to be able to continue working in this way recovering pages and pages of the history of Nasca.

NARRATOR: At the end of each day Orefici's team bring their finds back to his museum in the local town. Here they are safely stored in a treasure house of the Nasca culture. The pots are decorated with mythological creatures, animals and geometric shapes. Many of these images turn up on a much bigger scale, on the pampa. Nasca pottery styles change over time and archaeologists have been able to link the different styles to different periods, called simply Nasca 1 to 5. Pottery has been found broken and scattered on the Nasca lines and this has given archaeologists a way of dating their construction.

On the basis of the ceramic evidence the animal figures were found to be the oldest, dating to around 200AD. The straight lines and geometric designs were constructed later. The Nasca were building lines on the pampa for more than 500 years. Two weeks into the season Orefici was called to inspect a section of the dig. His team had found a well-like structure and it seemed to be clogged with fabric bundles. In many South American cultures fabrics like these are associated with burials…

GIUSEPPE OREFICI: There is an awful lot of cloth here.

NARRATOR: …so this could be an important discovery and Orefici extracted the delicate fabrics himself. They had been buried for nearly 2,000 years and were miraculously preserved.

GIUSEPPE OREFICI: Was it joined to something? There are feathers on this side but there are none on the other side. It's probably not a tomb. If there is one, it's lower down.


NARRATOR: This time there was no sign of a human burial beneath the fabrics, but the discovery was almost as exciting.

MAN: Look how lovely this is.

GIUSEPPE OREFICI: I've never seen anything like it. We've got 28 pieces of cloth. It's the first part of a bundle. We're only just starting on the rest. All the pieces of cloth belonged to very high-ranking people and they were decorated with religious imagery, particularly common are painted birds.

NARRATOR: As the desert wind rose, the work had to be finished. If local tomb-robbers heard about this discovery they might have decided to carry out their own investigations.


The archaeologists eventually unearthed 63 pieces of Nasca fabric, but there is a puzzle. The fabrics come from different periods of Nasca history and yet they were all jumbled up together.

GIUSEPPE OREFICI: All the data about this piece of cloth should be documented. Many parts are badly decomposed due to the presence of organic matter and due to exposure to humidity. These pieces of cloth were laid in a tomb in Cahuachi. They have a special significance not only as example of textile art but because the cloth has been sacrificed. It was placed with its needles and needle cases in this large tomb.

NARRATOR: The sacrifice of the fabrics provided important evidence about the kind of place Cahuachi was in ancient times. The textiles are richly decorated with images from Nasca mythology and don't appear to be intended for everyday use. It looks as if the people of Cahuachi were rather special, a Nasca elite. If the average Nasca citizen wasn't wearing these fabrics, who was? All the evidence from Orefici's huge collection of textiles points to one conclusion: the people of Cahuachi weren't soldiers or citizens, they were priests.

Orefici and other archaeologists have concluded that Cahuachi was a place devoted not to everyday life or military conquest, but to ritual and ceremony. Before the archaeologists could get back to the excavation, the wind returned, this time with much greater force. For many days no work could be done at the site. Orefici seized the chance to return to the key mystery of the Nasca, the lines on the pampa. These markings, called geoglyphs, are the most spectacular creation of the ancient Nasca. Why did they spend hundreds of years making lines?

Since their discovery nearly 80 years ago, the Nasca lines have inspired fantastic explanations. Notoriously the Austrian writer, Erich von Daniken, claimed they were evidence that the Earth had been visited by extraterrestrial. The lines, he said, were runways for their spacecraft, but as Horizon showed in 1977 they would not have made very effective landing sites.

ARCHIVE FILM NARRATOR: In fact if anything heavy leaves one of the modern paths crossing the plain and drives onto a Nasca Line, it simply gets stuck.

NARRATOR: Scientific study began in the 1940s with the arrival of a German mathematician and astronomer, Maria Reiche. She lived at Nazca until her death in 1998 and was known as the Lady of the Lines and as Saint Maria by the local people. Reiche believed the lines were a sophisticated astronomical calendar. In 1965 astronomer Gerald Hawkins came to Nazca fresh from investigating Stonehenge. He used computers to check Reiche's theory.

GERALD HAWKINS: We fed the azimuths, the angles, into the computer to determine the direction that they pointed to in the sky and we checked to see whether they matched with the 45 brightest stars or with the sun, moon or planets.

NARRATOR: Hawkins could find no correlation at all between the lines and the stars. Astronomy was not the solution to the puzzle. Modern archaeologists like Giuseppe Orefici have discovered that there is no mystery about how the lines were made.


The desert is covered with a layer of dark coloured stones. Beneath is a lighter coloured sediment. To create a line the Nasca simply had to remove the stones on the surface in whatever patterns they wished. The lines have lasted here for nearly 2,000 years. How can this remarkable conservation be explained?

GIUSEPPE OREFICI: These lines have been left untouched by man because no-one has ever farmed this area. What's more, there's the nature of the soil itself. It's made up of clay and gypsum. The humid nights make the stones sink deeper into the soil itself. Then, during the day, the sun hardens the surface leaving the stones even more securely fixed in the soil. The wind is constant but it can't move very large stones. That's why the lines can still be seen after 2,000 years.

NARRATOR: What has consistently puzzled everyone is that the Nasca lines can only be appreciated from above. One off-beat theory speculated that the Nasca were balloonists who could float above the pampa. That idea has gone the way of von Daniken's spaceships. So how did the Nasca create such enormous designs?

In the local town of Nazca a model of the pampa and the lines was constructed. Orefici had the job of presenting it to the Mayor. With them was Josue Lancho Rojas, who is Peru's leading expert on Nasca culture. Over many years Rojas has developed and tested new theories about the lines based on an intriguing feature of the Nasca textiles. They were all woven from a single thread of llama wool and the pictures of animals created on the pampa are all based on one line edged in the desert. Lancho Rojas thinks it was the Nasca's proficiency as weavers that allowed them to execute pictures and designs on a large scale.


Out on the pampa Lancho Rojas organised an experiment. He hoped it would support his theory that the Nasca wove the lines.


Weavers start with small designs, then scale them up on looms. Lancho Rojas thinks the same technique could have been applied on the pampa. The line builders would have begun with a sketch and then enlarged the scale with pegs and markers.


The result, after just a few hours' work, is a perfect Nasca spiral. But what were the Nasca lines for?

JOSUE LANCHO ROJAS (Historian): There is a theory supported by many anthropologists which says that the societies of Ancient Peru and the Nasca in particular, were made up of family groups and that each one of them had a deity, a minor god. Each one of these minor gods was represented on the pampa. On important dates these family groups went to the pampa and carried out ceremonies on the lines as an offering to the supreme gods in the sky.

NARRATOR: It was the single line that supplied a vital clue. It would have allowed the pampa markings to be used for a specific purpose. It seems the lines provided continuous ceremonial walkways. To round off his experiment Lancho Rojas invited the modern descendants of the Nasca to use the lines as their ancestors may have done more than 15 centuries ago.

There is also other evidence that the lines were for ritual walking. On the opposite side of the pampa from Cahuachi archaeologists have made a further, intriguing discovery. They found another big Nasca settlement called Ventilla. Although Ventilla has been partially destroyed by farming there was enough evidence to show that this was a genuine urban city, not a ritual centre like Cahuachi. One long Nasca line links Ventilla with Cahuachi. It seems likely this was a pilgrimage route between the two very different sites and there is powerful evidence that points to another purpose for many other lines. It's linked with the most precious commodity in the Nazca region.

The only reliable sources of water for the people of the Nazca valley are the high mountains of the Andes. Down here drought is the rule and the rivers flow from their mountain sources for only two brief seasons. At some point in the past the Nasca built an impressive irrigation system to control the precious water. 150 kilometres of aqueducts, most of them underground, criss-crossed the region. The ancient Nasca system is still in use today. This is a puquio. It gives access to deep, subterranean tunnels which can become blocked with debris.

GIUSEPPE OREFICI: In this region where modern Nazca is located we can still see that there is a fertile area which forms a unique resource to be exploited by man. The reason for this, is that by controlling the flow of water, the flow of water to the different areas the Nasca people and, in particular, the group of priests that held power in Cahuachi had the know-how and the sophisticated technology to use the distribution of the water in the different valleys to allow agriculture to flourish which led to the growth of the Nasca civilisation itself.

NARRATOR: Recent investigation has linked the lines directly with water. Although the animal images are the best known, there are also the 800 straight lines which run for many kilometres across the pampa. It's been shown that all but one of these lines start from star-like radial points often marked by a low mound and every one of those points bordered rivers and tributaries so if the lines were used for ceremonial walking, as seems very likely, some Nasca ceremonies were devoted to the precious sources of water.Water is also intimately connected with Cahuachi. For much of its length the Nazca river runs underground. Where it re-emerges the Nasca built their ceremonial capital.

Back at Cahuachi Orefici's team was joined by two new members - Brian Harrison, an American medical anthropologist, and with him Andrea Drusini from the University of Padua. Their expertise is the analysis of ancient skeletal remains and what they can reveal about the Nasca. This skeleton was dumped by tomb-robbers. Harrison and Drusini were hoping for an intact burial which would reveal more than these scattered bones.

DR BRIAN HARRISON (University of Oregon): We would prefer to have the burial be intact and in its original position, its original location, whatever grave goods accompanied the individual to death we'd like to have that kind of information too.

NARRATOR: Soon an exciting find was made. It was a mummified llama and it looked as if it had been sacrificed.


For the archaeologists this discovery could be very significant. A sacrificed animal is often part of a larger burial complex. These pots are usually used to cover the dead. It looked as if the archaeologists had found an ancient Nasca cemetery, but had tomb-robbers got here first? Soon afterwards came a remarkable discovery. The archaeologists were amazed by the exceptional preservation of the mummy's hair. The Nasca dead were buried in a foetal position, the lower limbs folded under the chin. There was another tomb close by. It contained a further mummy wrapped in its shroud. It was not an easy job to extricate it from 15 centuries of sleep.


At last Brian Harrison had an intact burial for autopsy.

BRIAN HARRISON: It's clearly the skeleton of a young woman. You can tell by the shape of the pelvis. She's an adult but she's not very old I think. I have not seen any arthritis on the joints. This excellent preservation of organic material here. This is a fantastic sight. The hair is in, in perfect condition and we can get a lot of information about the population that lived here a thousand years ago. One way we can tell that she was in good health is by the condition of her teeth. No lines, the enamel is very strong, so she was a healthy young woman, probably 20-25 years old.

NARRATOR: The remarkable preservation of the Nasca burials is a result of chemistry. The sands that covered the dead are rich in salts and nitrates and they have preserved an ancient culture for more than 1500 years. At the archaeologist improvised laboratory Andrea Drusini has been using the burials to investigate the types and extent of disease among the ancient people of Cahuachi.

ANDREA DRUSINI (University of Padua): We have gathered information on about 350 individuals so far. As with every population, we found examples of diseases: anaemia, malnutrition; illnesses which affect children, infectious diseases, but based on the statistics we've gathered about this people, statistics based on the age at the time of death, we can say that their life expectancy was around 37 or 38 years. That's comparable to Europeans at the turn of the nineteenth century when life expectancy was only 42 years. We should remember that there are 2,000 years separating them.

BRIAN HARRISON: If we were sitting in this spot 2,000 years ago it would seem like an oasis. We have the river valley with fields, we have very strong, healthy people, plenty of food to eat, no warfare. They were fairly short, long black hair, probably muscular from working very hard and we have evidence from the skeletal materials, particularly the teeth, that they were very healthy people and also from those same skeletons we see no evidence of trauma. There was no warfare here.

NARRATOR: The Nasca were not the warrior empire builders imagined by the archaeologists who first dug at Cahuachi. But violence of another sort was part of their society, as a new discovery soon revealed.

GIUSEPPE OREFICI: Hang on, Andrea, the lower jaw seems to be broken.

ANDREA DRUSINI: This is a very unusual position.

GIUSEPPE: Could it be natural?

ANDREA: No, there was probably an execution and the body was left in this position. It's bent under the stomach.

GIUSEPPE: This is very strange.

ANDREA: In my opinion there was a very heavy blow that nearly fractured the base of the skull. However, judging by the shape of the fracture the blow seems to have come from the front and not from behind. The head was pushed back and the neck bent.

GIUSEPPE: A massive fracture.

ANDREA: So, Giuseppe, it was a powerful blow to the frontal area, a sharp blow which completely smashed the nasal septum. It completely smashed the bones of the face.

GIUSEPPE: Was this a young person?


GIUSEPPE: 35 years old, 40 perhaps. There's fossilised excrement in the mouth.

NARRATOR: Although this isn't the first time that excrement has been found in the mouth of a mummy, it is a very unusual discovery.

GIUSEPPE OREFICI: We've found excrement inserted into the head. We still don't know what this means. It could imply contempt or maybe it was a punishment. We simply don't know.

NARRATOR: Over the course of a single day 7 intact burials were discovered. The mummies will become a part of Orefici's collection and play a vital part in unravelling the secrets of the line builders. Andrea Drusini has discovered that the world of the Nasca was, to modern eyes, a strange one indeed. More than 90% of the skulls found here have been artificially distorted. The Nasca wrapped the heads of their new-born with bands made of leather or wood. As a result, the still malleable skull grew upwards into this extraordinary shapes. There was another, puzzling discovery. Many of the skulls have circular holes cut into the forehead. For Orefici this bizarre feature offers a crucial insight into Nasca society at Cahuachi.

GIUSEPPE OREFICI: This is a group of 'trophy heads'. Why 'trophy heads'? It's a term that doesn't seem very logical to me because all the material we've found is unique to Cahuachi. It is linked to specific structures, not graves or other places. They are offerings, so I'd call them 'offering heads'. This one has a special feature. A cord was inserted into the hole and this was used to carry the head, as part of a ritual in which the head was deposited at the sacred place at Cahuachi.

NARRATOR: So the skulls were not the spoils of inter-tribal war, but offerings from the Nasca people themselves, and they have other ritual features. In some, the mouth is closed with a cactus needle. Often the eyes are blocked and the tongue is removed from the mouth and placed in a leather pouch.

GIUSEPPE OREFICI: One of the most exciting things is to see, to verify daily through the rituals, through what is left of the ceremonial life of Cahuachi the way of thinking of the Nasca people. A way of thinking that was based on ritual linked to their past and that was constantly evolving and that is still present in modern Nasca culture. It is as if without a past there was neither present nor future.

NARRATOR: After 17 years of excavation Giuseppe Orefici has been able to use the hard archaeological evidence to reconstruct the world of Cahuachi. Moulded from the desert itself the pyramids and plazas of the lost Nazca city were the site of ceremony and ritual. It was a city of priests who were guardians of Nasca culture and religion. On the other side of the pampa lay the big, urban settlement of Ventilla. Between Ventilla and Cahuachi the Nasca people created their lines etched in the dry stony desert. According to Orefici and other modern archaeologists, they were sacred walkways linking Ventilla with Cahuachi and the vital sources of water. Ritual and survival came together between the lines. Then 1500 years ago disaster overtook the ceremonial capital of the Nasca.

GIUSEPPE OREFICI (WITH SUB-TITLES): What happened at Cahuachi? Between 300 and 350 A.D. there were two natural disasters. A great, very powerful flood - we have found the evidence in all the excavations - and an earthquake, an earthquake which split the temples in two. We have also found dead bodies under the fallen walls. That's when the Nasca religion seemed to lose its power, at least some gods or the ceremonial centre itself lost power and that's when the place was abandoned. But before they left, since everything was ceremonial, everything was ritual, everything had religious significance for the Nasca, they completely sealed all the monuments. If we examine the higher levels we can see that a crust of clay has been deliberately applied on top of a man-made layer. They left behind a sacred place, called a 'Huaca'. Absolutely everything where we are standing has been covered by men themselves.

NARRATOR: At the end of the excavation season, to protect what they had found this year, Orefici and his team filled in the precious site. Just as the Nasca did before them, they buried Cahuachi under the desert sands. By the time the Inca empire rose to dominate the Andes during our Middle Ages the Nasca and their culture had been forgotten. It was not until the people of the 20th-century sent planes into the sky above the pampa that the Nasca and the spectacular wonders they created in the desert were rediscovered.

Back to The Lost City of Nasca programme page.

Information on repeats Information on video copies Back to homepage