Nazca Culture: Discovery, Location, Organization, Religion

The Nazca culture was located in ancient Peru before the Incas. This archaeological culture developed in the valleys of the current department of Ica around the 1st century. Its most important ceremonial center was in Cahuachi, on the left bank of the Rio Grande (present-day Naza province). The civilization created by this culture lasted until the 7th century.

The discoverer of this culture was the German archaeologist Max Uhle, who began to study it in 1900. It was this researcher who created the first chronology about this town, in addition to identifying its origin and influences. From the remains found, Uhle related this culture to the Paracas, although other authors have qualified this statement.

The best known and most impressive legacy of this culture are the so-called Nazca Lines. These are huge figures located in the Pampas de Jumana. Its real function is still unknown, although the two most followed hypotheses affirm that they had a religious meaning or that it was a calendar linked to agriculture.

Agricultural activity was precisely the basis of the economy of the Nazcas. In order to take advantage of the land, this town built a whole network of aqueducts considered a feat of its hydraulic engineering.


Max Uhle, a German archaeologist, is considered the discoverer of this culture. His research began in 1901 and, based on his findings, he came to the conclusion that the origin of this culture, which he called proto-Nazca, was found in the paraca-necropolis culture, although other scholars affirm that it came from the topará.

Uhle also affirmed that this culture predated the Tiahuanaco and contemporary Moche culture.

Later, other researchers continued the study of Nazca culture. Among them Julio C. Tello, Toribio Mejía Xesspe (discoverer of the Nazca Lines), Paul Kosok and María Reiche.

Origin and history

As indicated, the Nazca culture developed at the same time as the Moche culture, present in northern Peru, around the 1st century.

After several centuries in which it became one of the most influential civilizations in the region, the Nazca began their decline around 700 AD. The cause of this decline could be the desertification of the area they inhabited, although the appearance of a more bellicose culture, the huari, is also pointed out as a possible cause.

Origins of the Nazca culture

Max Uhle argued that the Nazca culture was strongly influenced by the previous Topará culture, formerly known as the paracas-necropolis. This had developed in the same area and the researcher found evident similarities in ceramic styles, traditions and agricultural techniques.

Historical stages

The Nazca culture began its development in the Early Intermediate Period, approximately in the year 10 BC. C. Its history has been divided into four different stages:

Early Nazca : in this first stage, the Nazca communities that lived around the Rio Grande began to develop their own style in their pottery.

Middle Nazca : the influence of Paracas (or topará) was decisive in the cultural development of the Nazca. His first iconographic representations of their gods then appeared on ceramics and textiles. In this stage the most important ceremonial center of this culture was founded: Cahuachi

Late Nazca : it is considered a time in which the Nazca culture underwent many changes. To begin with, Cahuachi was abandoned and its inhabitants settled elsewhere. The most important ceremonial center happened to be located in La Estaquería. It was also then that the Nazca established contact with the Huarpas, a people that lived in the mountains near Ayacucho.

Nazca Final : the decline of this culture began around 700 AD. C. As indicated, the real causes are unknown, but it is estimated that it could be the result of a climate change that favored the desertification of the lands of this town. Another of the options considered is the arrival of the warlike huari in the area.

Geographic location

The Nazcas established their territory in the south of present-day Peru, between the province of Chincha on the Pacific coast to Ayacucho, in the Andes.

It was a territory located in the current Ica Region, which includes the valleys of Chincha, Pisco, Ica and Río Grande, in addition to some of its tributaries, such as Nazca or Palpa.

These valleys cross a coastal area with an almost desert climate, which caused the Nazcas to have to overcome the inconveniences presented by their arid deserts and the rivers that dried up in summer.

Main ceremonial center

The Nazca culture developed around its main religious and political center: Cahuachi. This town was located about 6 kilometers from the current city of Nazca.

According to experts, it was a center dedicated exclusively to worship and politics, with no population engaged in activities such as crafts or commerce.

Cahuachi had in its interior more than forty pyramidal peaks, with adobe structures in the upper part. The largest of these pyramids was composed of six superimposed terraces that exceeded 20 meters in height.

Social and political organization

Nazca society was politically organized as a theocracy, with religious power as the highest authority.

Its main ceremonial and political center was the city of Cahuachi. However, for reasons that are not known, at one point, the population left the town and moved to other cities located in different areas of Peru.

Local manors

The Nazcas did not have any type of unified government or a capital proper, despite the importance of Cahuachi as a ceremonial center. Politically it was a group of local manors located at the ends of the valleys. The rest of the territory was dedicated to agriculture.

Experts point out that it is likely that these lordships joined together temporarily to face a problem. Meanwhile, their only common bond was religion and culture. It is also thought that there must have been constant struggles between them.

In this sense, it is known that the Nazcas were a very militaristic people. The custom of its warriors to carry trophy heads obtained from their enemies is known. The artistic representations show the soldiers with their faces painted imitating the stains of a falcon.

This militaristic character suggests that its military expansion came about through war. Fortified cities have been found in the Nazca area of ​​influence, in addition to a large number of weapons in the tombs.

One of the existing theories indicates that this expansion could be due to the need to expand the farmlands in the face of the desertification process that was taking place in its original territory.

Social organization

The Nazca social pyramid was headed by priests and lords. Their functions were to organize the work of the community and direct the complex religious ceremonies.

The power groups resided in pyramidal buildings built in special sectors of the city. Their rooms were made of adobe and the walls were covered with a layer of plaster or lime.

These authorities had at their service a great multitude of specialized artisans. Among them were potters, textile workers, musicians, soldiers or astrologers who resided in ceremonial centers or in small cities.

Within that group at the direct service of the elite, the warriors stood out, who formed a feared and respected social class. In artistic representations they are always characterized by their pride and strength.

The base of the social pyramid was made up of farmers and fishermen. Their place of residence was not the cities, but they lived on the periphery of them or in small villages. Their homes were built by placing carob logs to form the walls.


As with the rest of the cultures of the time, the Nazcas had a polytheistic religion. Their rituals were dedicated to gods related, for the most part, to nature. Thus, they worshiped gods such as those of the sea, sky, water, wind, fire or the creator god.

The Nazcas built temples to honor these gods. In their ceremonies they used to ask that the crops be abundant and that their people not go hungry. In this sense, it was very frequent that they asked the gods to avoid drought and that the canals did not dry up.

Main gods

The Nazca culture, like the Paraca, worshiped Kon, whom they considered as the creator god of the world and of men. In his representations, this divinity used to appear flying, with Geline masks, food, trophy heads and a staff.

On the other hand, the Nazca religion also had its destroying god, Boto. It was a hybrid of feline, bird and fish that caused destruction and fear in civilization.

Most of the rest of his pantheon, as has been pointed out, was related to nature, with gods that symbolized the sea, fire, mountains or the sky, among other aspects.

Sacrifices and offerings

The Nazca offered human sacrifices to their gods in their religious or war ceremonies. His rites included wearing the heads of his fallen enemies as trophies.

After the decapitation, the body was left in the wild to be eaten by the condors. These birds were considered as intermediaries to fulfill ceremonial purposes.

On the other hand, the Nazcas extracted the brain from the skull. After this operation, they sewed up the mouth and made a small incision in the forehead through which they passed a rope to carry the head. According to one theory, the practical purpose was to honor the fertility of the land.

Funeral customs

The burial chambers for the upper class of Nazca society were characterized by their lined complex. The bodies were buried surrounded by a large number of offerings.

The mummies were wrapped in cloaks and placed in the fetal position. Sometimes a bulge was placed on top that pretended to be a head.

Music and beliefs

Music, the researchers claim, played a very important role in religious ceremonies. This town made various musical instruments, such as quenas, trumpets, drums or antaras.

Many of these instruments have been found in the graves themselves. Most of them were decorated with scenes related to the mythology of this town.

Nazca lines, religion or astronomy?

The best known legacy of this culture are the so-called Nazca Lines, a series of large figures that represent animals, human beings, as well as some geometric designs.

One of the big questions about this civilization is precisely the purpose of these figures. In general terms, and leaving aside the most esoteric explanations, there are two great hypotheses about them. The first affirms that it would be a large calendar that was used to control the change of seasons for agriculture.

Another theory, to which a study presented in 2015 by the Japanese university of Yamagata has been added, points out that the figures had ritualistic purposes, both for the Nazcas and other nearby cultures.

Likewise, some studies affirm that they were able to adorn the paths of the pilgrims who were heading to Cahuachi.

The discoverer of these figures was the archaeologist Mejía Xesspe, in 1927. Later, they have been exhaustively studied by the German Maria Reiche,

The Nazca Lines are made up of more than 30 figures, among which are a 50 meter high hummingbird, a 90 meter long monkey, a 135 meter gannet or a 46 meter spider.

The technique with which they made these figures is still as unknown as their final purpose. In the excavations ropes, stakes and sketches of the figures have been found that were used as instruments to make their tracing.


The Nazca culture based its economy on agriculture. For this they had to overcome the problem posed by the aridity of the area in which they lived through the construction of imposing aqueducts, canals and wells.

The proximity of the sea allowed this town to develop an important fishing and shellfish activity. The Nazcas left evidence of their relationship with the sea in the decoration of many of their ceramic pieces. In these not only animals such as whales appeared, but they also represented the moments in which they carried out those activities.

Although less important than agriculture or fishing, trade also had some importance for the Nazca economy. Thus, they exchanged part of their ceramic and textile production with other peoples far from the coast. One of the examples of commercial relations was the one they established with the huarpas of the sierra.


As has been pointed out, the basis of the Nazca economy was agriculture. Developing this activity was not easy for this civilization, since the climate was quite dry, there was little suitable land for cultivation and the rivers had little flow and dried up in summer.

Antonio Raimondi, a Peruvian nationalized Italian researcher, described the situation in the 19th century as follows:

“In the subsoil of Nazca there is underground water, but since it is found at a depth of 4 or 5 meters, it cannot be used to irrigate the land. The river usually only has running water for 40 days a year, so that, for more than 10 months, Nazca would lack water if it were not for the work undertaken by the ancient Indians ”.

Hydraulic engineer

The Nazcas solved the problems for their agriculture by applying a very advanced technology for the time. In this way, they built canals, wells and aqueducts that allowed them to continuously carry water to the fields of crops. The strength of these structures has meant that some of the irrigation canals are still in use.

The Nazcas carried out excavations that reached between 20 and 50 meters deep, until they found water. Later, they diverted the liquid through underground channels that led to deposits called cochas. From there the irrigation of the entire plantation began. The canals were built with stones, log roofs and flagstones.

Thanks to those underground aqueducts, which also brought water to the cities, the Nazcas grew products such as corn, squash, beans, squash, peanuts, yucca, lucuma, guava, chili, or cotton. The latter was the main raw material for their fabrics.


One of the peculiarities of the Nazca culture was its condition as the first urban civilization of ancient Peru. For this reason, its architecture was focused on the construction of large ceremonial and urban centers. The main materials were clay and rectangular adobe.


The ceremonial center of Cahuachi, today an important archaeological complex, contained a good part of the characteristics of Nazca architecture. Located on the banks of the Rio Grande, at its best it reached an area of ​​150 hectares.

This city had a pyramid-shaped temple composed of superimposed terraces. Likewise, his palace destined for the military chiefs stood out. Both buildings were in the middle of six well-defined neighborhoods.

In this city you can see the two typical construction techniques of the Nazcas: one that used conical adobes and the other that used quincha walls.

However, there were not too many relevant and solid adobe constructions. In most cases, the structures were built on mounds or raised floors. On these and around them the buildings were erected.

Despite its importance, experts do not consider Cahuachi to be an urban center. It was actually the most important ceremonial center of the Nazca culture. Even before the city was built, the place was considered sacred according to the Andean worldview.

The history of Cahuachi, whose period of splendor lasted between the 1st century and 750 AD. C. approximately, contains a mystery not yet solved. Thus, evidence has been found that, in its last stage, many of its structures were destroyed and others were buried with layers of very thick clay.

The city basically became a great cemetery in a phase in which warlike confrontations took place within the Nazca society.

The Estaquería

The place that replaced Cahuachi as the main ceremonial center was La Estaquería, located about 4 kilometers from the previous one. In this place the remains of an artificial adobe platform have been found on which 240 poles of huarango, a tree also known as carob, had been placed.

These posts were distributed in 12 rows of 20 stakes each separated by two meters. It is estimated that these posts supported a roof.

La Estaquería maintained a certain status until the year 1000, already during the rule of the Huari culture. It finally disappeared when a barrage of mud and sand buried the place.

In addition to La Estaquería and Cahuachi, the Nazcas built other urban centers, such as Tambo Viejo, Pampa de Tinguiña and Huaca del Loro.

Demolition of sacred centers

The Nazca had a custom that has caused the remains of their oldest temples to have almost completely disappeared. When the priests thought that the huaca in the temple had lost its power or was unhappy, the community rebuilt it completely.

The settlers tore down the walls and break the columns, while the foundations were sealed and buried. On the platform they proceeded to build a new temple.


The Nazca culture was influenced by the Topará culture, formerly called the paracas-necropolis, in the textile activity. This heritage was evident in the elaboration of fine mantles or fabrics, although the quality they achieved was not the same as that of their predecessors.

Despite this slight loss of quality, the Nazca textiles stood out for the variety of its techniques and the complexity of the designs. The materials they used were cotton and camelid wool.

The techniques that best mastered were embroided, upholstery, three-dimensional weaving, painted fabrics and embroidery. In the latter, the Nazcas produced very remarkable pieces. To make them, they embroidered with camelid wool dyed in various colors on the plain cotton cloth. Some of these designs were also used by potters on the vessels.


Faced with the important artistic examples that the Nazcas left in their ceramics, textiles or geoglyphs, their sculptures were quite simple. Thus, these consist only of sketches of anthropomorphic figures on the surface of the stones.

On the other hand, they did develop an important sculptural activity linked to ceramics. In this way, they made polychrome ceramic pieces with human, animal or plant figures. Later, they decorated them with various colors.


As with sculpture, metallurgy did not have an important development within the Nazca culture, which was reflected in goldsmithing. Despite this, this people knew gold and copper and the first worked by rolling and embossing to make jewelry, masks and large nose rings that extended to the sides like wings.

As for copper, it is estimated that they began to use it very late and only through the smelting technique.

In addition to the aforementioned pieces, the Nazcas also made objects intended to be used in religious ceremonies.


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