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Nasca (also sometimes spelled “Nazca”) lines, a series of miles-long marks etched into the foothills of the Andes by a vanished civilization that seem to form drawings visible from the air, are one of the world’s most puzzling man-made features. In a recent National Geographic article, Writer Stephen S. Hall describes the startling experience of seeing them from an airplane window:

The lines etched in the floor of the desert were hard to see, like drawings left in the sun too long. As our pilot cut tight turns over a desert plateau in southern Peru, north of the town of Nasca, I could just make out a succession of beautifully crafted figures.

“Orca!” shouted Johny Isla, a Peruvian archaeologist, over the roar of the engine. He pointed down at the form of a killer whale.

“¡Mono!” he said moments later, when the famous Nasca monkey came into view. “¡Colibrí!” The hummingbird.

It’s no surprise that since the lines’ discovery by early air travelers in the 1920s, they’ve been the subject of fascination and at times wild speculation. As Hall notes, at one time or another, they have been explained as Inca roads, irrigation plans, settings on an astronomical calendar, and as images intended to be seen from primitive hot-air balloons. Erich von Daniken, author of the 2002 book Arrival of the Gods: Revealing the Ancient Landing Sites of Nazca and for a time proprietor of a paranormal-themed amusement park in Switzerland that featured a replica of the lines, hatched perhaps the most outlandish theory. He famously suggested that they were the site of a giant spaceport for ancient extraterrestrial astronauts, later turned into a religious shrine by the ancient humans who were influenced by the visitors.

For roughly the past decade and a half, however, German and Peruvian scientists have been engaged in intense research that Hall writes may finally yield a definite explanation of the enormous markings. Finding that answer seems to be intertwined with understanding the rise and fall of the Nasca civilization, which emerged around 200 B.C.E. and existed for eight centuries in the river valleys of the region.

Archaeologists have discovered that the Nasca had a vigorous, sophisticated culture. They made distinctive pigmented ceramics that depicted fanciful scenes of pan-pipers and dancing dogs. Their capital, Cahuachi, was filled with intricate stairways, broad plazas and a large adobe pyramid. But even more impressive was the ingenious irrigation system — horizontal wells called puquios — that tapped the sloping groundwater beneath the foothills and enabled them to grow tubers, corn and other crops in the often desperately dry region. The basic water transport system invented by the Nasca was so good, in fact, that it is still used today.

As Hall writes, in order to survive and thrive in the parched harshness of their homeland, the Nasca were “Green” many centuries before it became fashionable.

The creation of the puquios displayed a sophisticated sense of water conservation, since the underground aqueducts minimized evaporation. The farmers planted seeds by making a single hole in the ground rather than plowing, thus preserving the substructure of the soil. During a visit to a Nasca site called La Muña, Isla pointed out layers of vegetative matter in the walls of buildings and terraces that marked the rocky hillside settlement. The Nasca, he said, recycled their garbage as building material. “It’s a society that managed its resources very well,” he said. “This is what Nasca is all about.”

The Nasca, however, didn’t invent the practice of making geoglyths, the giant earth drawings for which they are most remembered. Archaeologists have found at least 75 stylized giant human figures, created two centuries before the Nascas’ rise, that were the work of the Paracas, an earlier people.

As Hall notes, the research has yielded other insights. Scientists now believe that the Nasca lines weren’t a single project, but decorations that evolved and were altered over time. Some of the Nasca geoglyths actually seem to be modifications or based upon the Paracas’ designs. (That seems to blow holes in von Daniken’s imagined scenario.) Additionally, as Hall points out, the Paracas-era drawings were actually on the slopes of the hillsides, where they could be seen from the ground as well as the air.

But perhaps the most startling revelation is that the Nasca lines weren’t meant to be looked at from above, but watched and walked through on the ground. By measuring local variations in the Earth’s magnetic field, researchers have determined that the ground around the drawings was heavily walked upon centuries ago. They’ve also discovered nearby mounds containing sacrificial offerings, such as smashed pots and crayfish shells.

The scientists also have uncovered a more grisly sacrifice: the decapitated remains of a young man who was killed between 325 and 450 A.D. and then carefully buried. They believe that he was not an enemy but a Nasca chosen to appease the gods.

Why would the Nasca have made such sacrifices? Scientists theorize that they hoped to persuade the gods to continue providing them with increasingly scarce water that their civilization needed to survive. By the time of the young man’s sacrifice, the fickle climate of the region had begun to shift, and the desert was creeping into Nasca territory, eating up precious cropland. The Nasca were forced to move further up into the valleys in an attempt to outrun the destruction, but ultimately, it didn’t work. By 700 A.D., the aridity had reached such a point that the Nasca lifestyle and culture was unsustainable, and it vanished.

Watch The Truth Behind the Nasca Lines on Friday July 23 at 10P et/pt.