What is it that prompts some people to devote most of their lives to a particular cause, idea, or mystery? Is it random? A result of the circumstances, time, and culture into which the person is born? Does the individual come into his life with a particular soul mission? Or is sit a combination of these or something else?
History is filled with examples – Gandhi (peace), Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King (equality and freedom for all) Carl Jung (the human psyche) Joseph Campbell (mythology and man) JK Rowling (bringing a certain wizard boy to life), Helen Keller (overcoming disabilities), Amelia Earhart (breaking a glass ceiling in aviation) Rosas Parks (sparked the civil rights movement). You get the idea here. In way one or another, these people made a significant difference in the world.
In a nutshell, the Nazca lines lie in southern Peru, on an arid plateau that stretches for 50 miles between the towns of Nazca and Palpa. The lines are a series of ancient geoglyphs that scholars believe were created during the Nazca culture between 400 and 650 A.D. Hundreds of the lines are simple geometric shapes. But some of them are intricate designs of birds, fish, jaguars, spiders, monkeys, and llamas. The largest figures are more than 660 feet across. The best way to see them is in the air. Here’s the hummingbird:
So how does Maria Reiche figure into the strange and intriguing saga of the Nazca lines?
In 1939, Dr. Paul Kosok, a professor of history at Long Island University, traveled to Nazca because he was interested in investigating whether the lines were ancient irrigation canals, his specialty. He’s often credited as the first serious researcher of the lines. During his research, he concluded that the ground surface was too superficial to have carried water. He also identified the shapes of animals in some of the lines and noticed that some of them converged on the date of the winter solstice. This triggered his research into whether the Nazca lines were related to astronomy.
His research assistant was Maria Reiche, born in Dresden, Germany in 1903. At Dresden Technical University, she studied math, astronomy, geography and foreign languages. She spoke five languages fluently. In 1932, she became a nanny and teacher for a German consul in Cuzco and when the war broke out, was detained in Peru because she was a German citizen. She became Kosok’s assistant shortly after his arrival in Nazca.
Reiche and Kosok began to map and assess the lines for their connection to astronomical events. After Kosok left Peru in 1948, she continued the work on her own. Her background as a mathematician enabled her to analyze how the Nazca could have created such large scale figures and with such sophisticated mathematical precision.
The Nazca lines can best be seen from the air, so Reiche convinced the Peruvian Air Force to help her make aerial photographic surveys. She eventually wrote a book on her theories – The Mystery on the Desert – that the that the builders of the lines had used them as a sun calendar and an observatory for astronomical cycles. With the proceeds from her book, she campaigned for the preservation of the Nazca lines. Her quest intensified when a segment of the Pan American Highway cut through one of the figures.
She eventually convinced the Peruvian government to preserve the Nazca area. When she died in 1998, she was buried with official honors, with great pomp and circumstance, in Nazca.
Our friend Kathy Doore, who has written about Markawasi, Peru, has a piece of her website about Reiche that perhaps best explains what drives people like Reiche. In 1986, when she was asked what events in her life had prepared her for this lifelong passion, she replied:
“It was a kind of destiny. When I first came to Peru by sea the ship went passing through the center of four consecutive rainbows, four arcs, one inside the other. It was a marvelous spectacle! It must have been some kind of prediction or something. Imagine a boat, a boat driving through the open sea, passing through arching rainbows that touched the waves. Everything had prepared me for this life. The isolation into which I found myself, my parents putting me aside after my brother was born, my shortsightedness not being detected, all made me an introvert. It made me aloof because I was never the popular type. Now the tourists have made me popular. I was never popular! I sometimes wanted to be, but I could never be. What compelled me on this quest was my curiosity. I wanted to know!”
In late July, a pilot discovered new Nazca lines that include a snake some 200 feet long, a giant bird, and a huge zigzag line. It’s believed the lines were uncovered during a sandstorm. So it seems this area is stll surrendering its secrets.