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Killer Whale, Nasca Culture, pottery, Larco Museum. Lima, Perú

Nasca culture (alternatively spelled Nazca when referring to the geographical region; the term Nasca refers to the archaeological culture (Silverman,1994)) flourished from the first to eighth centuries AD beside the dry southern coast of Peru in the river valleys of the Rio Grande de Nazca drainage and the Ica Valley (Silverman and Proulx, 2002). Having been heavily influenced by the preceding Paracas culture, which was known for extremely complex textiles, the Nasca produced an array of beautiful crafts and technologies such as ceramics, textiles, and geoglyphs (most commonly known as the Nazca lines). They also built an impressive system of underground aqueducts, known as puquios, that still function today.



Time Frame

Nazca society developed during the Early Intermediate Period and is generally divided into the Proto Nazca (phase 1,100 B.C. – A.D. 1), the Early Nazca (phases 2-4, A.D. 1-450), Middle Nazca (phase 5, A.D. 450-550) and Late Nazca (phases 6-7, A.D. 550-750) cultures (Vaughn, 2006).

Social Structure

Early Nasca society was made up of local chiefdoms and regional centers of power centered around Cahuachi, a non-urban ceremonial site of mounds and plazas (Valdez, 1994). Theories resulting from various excavations at Cahuachi suggest that the site was home to rituals and feasting relating to agriculture, water, and fertility. This may have been as a result of environmental deterioration; the eventual collapse of the center may have also been a result of that decline (Valdez, 1994). Cahuachi lies in the lower portion of the Nazca Valley and was initially occupied during the late Paracas phase. It is entirely unique from all other Nasca sites in the region and it is definitely the most important site concerning the study of ancient Nasca culture (Valdez, 1995). It is a site of natural huacas (hills) that were modified by the people into pyramid mounds.

Excavations at Cahuachi have given archaeologists key insights into the culture. The material remains found at the site included large amounts of polychrome pottery, evidence of maize, squash, bean, and peanuts, as well as some fish, plain and fancy textiles, trace amounts of gold and spondylus shell, and an array of ritual paraphernalia. The remains of pottery found at Cahuachi led archaeologists to believe that the site was specifically non-urban and ceremonial in nature. The ratio of plain, utilitarian pottery to fine, polychrome pottery was 30% to 70% (Silverman, 1988). If it was an urban center, for example, the amount of utilitarian ceramics would have probably been higher.

Construction at Cahuachi ceased and it appears as though the site was abandoned at the very end of Nasca 3/early Nasca 4. Although there are many possible reasons for the collapse of Cahuachi, the peak and cessation of ceremonial use of the site is most commonly associated with the the pan-Andean drought (Valdez, 1994). Later (post-Cahuachi) Nasca society was structured in a similar fashion as it had been before, but less of an emphasis was made in constructing large architectural complexes like those at Cahuachi (Silverman and Proulx, 2002)


No doubt due to the extreme nature of the surrounding environment, much of Nasca religious beliefs centered around agriculture and fertility. Much of Nasca art depicts powerful nature gods such as the mythical killer whale, the harvesters, the mythical spotted cat, the serpentine creature, and the most prevalent of worshiped figures, the anthropomorphic mythical being. Much like the contemporary Moche culture, Shamans apparently used hallucinogenic drugs, such as extractions from the San Pedro cactus, to induce visions. The use of such substances is also depicted in art found on pottery related to the Nasca (Silverman and Proulx, 2002). Religious events and ceremonies took place at the center of Nasca society, in Cahuachi. These ceremonies took place to worship the nature gods to aid in the growth of agriculture. During this time, all members of the society in surrounding villages would migrate to the center and participate in feasting as well. Non-elites could obtain highly valued goods such as fancy polychrome pottery through feasting. In exchange, the elites could enhance their political power and status while co-opting the commoners into labor and construction of the site (Silverman, 1988).

"Trophy Heads"

The debate over the purpose of trophy heads continues to this day, whether they were trophies of war or objects of ritual. Visual depictions of decapitations often associate the decapitators with weapons and military-like dress, but these types of garments could have been worn in purely ceremonial circumstances as well (DeLeonardis, 2000). The term 'trophy head' was coined by Archaeologist Max Uhle, who considered the depiction of severed heads in ancient Peruvian art to correspond to trophies of warfare (Silverman and Proulx, 2002). They were also considered trophy objects due to the fact that they all had one modification in common- a hole in the forehead through which a rope can be affixed presumably so that the severed head can be displayed or carried (Browne, Silverman, and Garcia, 1993).

Many burials of Nasca individuals are what is known as 'partial burials'. Partial burials typically include bundles of limbs, caches of severed heads, or bodies that are missing several parts (DeLeonardis, 2000). Several burials have been discovered in which the head of the skeleton is missing and is replaced with what is most commonly referred to as a 'head jar'. The head jar is a ceramic vessel with a human head painted on it, along with trees and plants sprouting from the head.

The Middle Nasca period experienced a dramatic increase of the number of severed heads found, and the numbers seem to taper off in the late Nasca period although the practice remains a popular one in this period (DeLeonardis, 2000). Late Nasca iconography suggests that the prestige of the leaders of Late Nasca society was enhanced by successful head-hunting (Browne, Silverman, and Garcia, 2003).

Arts and Technology


A fish-like figurative double spout and bridge vessel from Cahuachi.

The Nasca culture is characterized by its beautiful polychrome pottery painted with at least 15 distinct colors. The shift from post-fire resin painting to pre-fire slip painting marked the end of Paracas style pottery and the beginning of Nasca style pottery. The use of pre-fire slip painting meant that a great deal of experimentation took place in order to know which slips produced certain colors. Major pottery shapes include double-spout bottles, bowls, cups, vases and effigy forms. Archaeologists have excavated highly valued polychrome pottery in all classes of Nasca society, illustrating that it was not just the elite that had access to them. Commoners were able to obtain these goods through feasting and pilgrimages to Cahuachi. In addition, clays matching the chemical signature of polychrome pottery found all over the Southern Nazca Region have been found near Cahuachi. However, there is no substantial evidence of pottery production at Cahuachi. The site was most likely a redistribution center for ceramics (Vaughn and Neff, 2000).

The Nasca pottery sequence has been divided into nine phases. Visual depictions found on pottery from Phase 1 [also called Proto-Nasca] incorporated realistic subject matter such as fruits, plants, people, and animals. Realism increased in importance in the following three phases (2, 3, 4) referred to as the Monumental phases. The pottery from these phases include renditions of their main subject matter against a bold red, black, or white background. In the next phase, Nasca 5, considerable experimentation occurred, including the addition of rays, volutes, and other "proliferous" attachments to the supernatural motifs on the vessels. Phase 5 is called Transitional, since it bridges the change in style between the naturalism of Phases 2-4 and the proliferous elements added to the motifs in Phases 6 and 7. Nasca 6, and 7 include some of the earlier motifs but also emphasizes militaristic ones, suggesting a shift in social organization. The motifs in these phases 'include abstract elements as part of the design. Large numbers of rays and tassels are appended to many of the designs, particularly those depicting mythical subjects, producing a visual impression of almost infinitely multiplied elements, an impression which accounts for the use of the term 'proliferous' (Roark 1965:2). Art found on pottery in relation to Nasca phases 6 and 7 also display an influence from the Moche culture of north coastal Peru. Finally, Nasca 8 saw the introduction of completely disjointed figures and a geometric iconography which is difficult to decipher. Phases 8 and 9 are now believed to date to the Middle Horizon, reflecting a shift in power from the coast to the highlands with the advent of the Wari culture about 650 A.D. (Silverman and Proulx, 2002).

The Nasca, like all other Pre-Columbian societies in South America including the Inca, had no writing system, in contrast to the contemporary Maya of Mesoamerica. Thus the iconography or symbols painted on their ceramics served as a means of communication. The motifs depicted on Nasca pottery fall into two major categories: sacred and profane. The Nasca believed in powerful nature spirits who were thought to control most aspects of life. The Nazca visualized these nature spirits in the form of mythical beings, creatures having a combination of human and animal/bird/fish characteristics and painted them onto their pottery. These Mythical Beings include such varieties as the Anthropomorphic Mythical Being, Horrible Bird, Mythical Killer Whale, Spotted Cat, etc. (Proulx 2006). Scenes of warfare, decapitation, and the ritual use of human trophy heads by shamans reflect other aspects of Nasca culture.


Nasca mantle from Paracas Necropolis, 0-100 AD. This is a "double fish" (probably sharks) design. Brooklyn Museum collections.

The Nasca are also known for their technically complex textiles. The textile were most likely made by women at habitation sites from spun cotton and wool (Silverman and Proulx, 2002). The textiles would have been made using a backstrap loom, this is very similar to the way these textiles are made in the region today (Silverman and Proulx, 2002). The motifs that appeared on the pottery appeared earlier in the textiles. The desert has preserved the textiles of both the Nazca and Paracas cultures and comprise most of what we know about early textiles in the region. Shawls, dresses, tunics, belts, and bags have been found through excavations at Cahuachi and elsewhere. Many textiles associated with the Nasca culture are garments that are included with grave goods found at burial sites. Almost every body found is wrapped (sometimes partially) in a textile as a part of burial ritual. These textiles are even found with partial burials. Often piles of bones will be found wrapped in a textile garment (DeLeonardis, 2000)The deposit of dresses and shawls contained high status garments (w/feathers, painting, embroidery) and plain garments suggesting different social roles or responsibilities. Furthermore, some light has been shed on the women of the Nasca culture as a result of an extensive analysis of textiles from Cahuachi done by Mary Frame. Frame noted that Nasca women, who are rarely recognized in the archaeological record, had access to high-status materials and the right to wear potent imagery on their garments (Frame, 2003). A large portion of dresses were found portraying birds with speckled bodies, double-headed serpentine figures, and anthropomorphic figures.

The Nazca Lines

The geoglyphs of Nazca or "Nazca lines" are a series of geometric shapes, miles of lines, and large drawings of animal figures (some as large as a football field) constructed on the desert floor in the Nazca region (Aveni, 2000). Many theories have surrounded the great geoglyphs in the Nazca desert. While there are some who believe these enormous lines could not have been drawn by man, the truth is that with a large number of people and a large period of time it would have been more than possible to construct the lines. By extending a rope between two posts and removing the red pebbles on the desert surface along the rope, the lines could be constructed. The contrast of the red desert pebbles and the lighter earth beneath would make the lines visible from a high altitude. Due to the simplistic construction of the geoglyphs, regular amounts of rainfall would have easily eroded the drawings but the dry desert environment has preserved the lines for hundreds of years. The purpose of the lines also remains debatable. Some interpretations suggest they were created for the Gods to look upon them from above, while others suggest they were some sort of calendar with astronomical alignments that would aid in planting and harvesting of crops. Others have postulated that the purpose of the lines was not to be looked at, but to be walked upon as a sort of ceremonial procession (Aveni, 2000). The lines have been studied by experts of several disciplines. Anthropologists, archaeologists, and astronomers have all studied the lines (Silverman and Proulx, 2002) but no evidence has been found to support any of the above explainations (Aveni, 2000). It remains unlikely that we will ever know the true purpose of the geoglyphs.

Subsistence and Agriculture

Nasca subsistence was based largely on agriculture. Iconography on ceramics and excavated remains indicate that the Nazca people had a varied diet composed of maize, squash, sweet potato, manioc and achira, and even a small trace of various fish. They also utilized several non-food crops such as cotton for textiles, coca, San Pedro cactus, and gourds which were also used to illustrate activities in daily life. The evidence of coca in society can be seen through remains but also through ceramics. This is the same for the hallucinogenic San Pedro cactus which has been illustrated in ceremonies on several polychrome pots and bowls. In terms of animals resources, the Nasca used the llama and guinea pig for sacrifice at Cahuachi. Llamas were also commonly exploited as pack animals, for their wool, and as a source of meat (Silverman and Proulx, 2002). As archaeological evidence indicates thus far, sometime during the Middle Nasca period, the Nasca people created an hydraulic system to sustain life in the exceedingly arid environment. The exact date of construction of the puquios has been under contention for some time now. Dating of the puquios themselves is quite difficult because of the materials involved in their construction. Attempts at dating the trenches that are dug is also difficult as the puquios are the results of excavation. This has ruined any context that may have been interpreted (Schreiber and Rojas, 1995). The most promising techniques used to date them thus far has been the AMS (Accelerator Mass Spectrometry) analysis of varnish that has collected on the rocks inside the puquios and the study of settlement patterns in the area (Clarkson and Dorn, 1995). These techniques have placed the original construction of the puquios at the Middle Nasca period as indicated above. This irrigation system was made up of underground channels, known as puquios, which tapped into the subsurface water beneath the ground. The channels were dug into the mountainside until they reached the aquifers under the surface. The channels were lined with river rocks. They did not use any mortar so that the water would pass into the channels. The water was then transported to irrigation canals (acequias) in order to directly supply water for agricultural purposes, or the water was deposited into small reserviors (kochas) for later use (Schreiber and Rojas, 1995). A large number of access holes or "ojos" (eyes) were placed along the surface of the underground channels and operated much in the same way that modern manholes do. People would descend into the puquios in order to clear obstructions or make repairs on the puquios themselves (Schreiber and Rojas, 1995). It is difficult to tell how long these underground channels are due to the fact that extant puquios have been altered and many of the puquios are too dangerous to explore underground. The length of the puquios are estimated by measuring the distances covered by the ojos (Schreiber and Rojas, 1995). Many of these channels remain in use to this day. This is a testament to just how important these puquios would have been to any ancient peoples living in this area. The modern use of these puquios has included alterations in their basic structure so that they can be used more efficiently. Motorized pumps have been incorporated into the structure of some of the puquios. There have also been some instances when the kochas have been lined with concrete in order to hold the water better (Schreiber and Rojas, 1995). In addition, some of the best preserved channels are those located in Cantalloc. (Silverman, 1988)


Trephination and Cranial Manipulation

Trephination was a primitive skull surgery used by the Nasca that relieved pressure on the brain from battle wounds or for ritual purposes. It entails the removal of one or more sections of bone from the cranium (while the person is still alive). Evidence of trephination has been seen through the analysis of excavated skulls. Some of the skulls even show signs of healing, evidence that some individuals who underwent the procedure had survived. Elongated skulls as a result of skull manipulation were also seen in the excavations from Cahuachi. This effect was achieved by binding a cushion to an infant's forehead and a board to the back of the head. Archaeologists can only speculate as to why this was done to some of the skulls. Several theories suggest skull manipulation created an ethnic identity, formed the individual into a social being, or may have illustrated social status. (Silverman and Proulx, 2002)


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