LAND OF THE ANCIENTS
Eleanor Hughes finds aqueducts, pyramids and a city of the dead.
Standing under a tree out of the burning sun, I find out the Nazca area receives only one to two centimetres of rain a year. This year it hasn’t come. No wonder it’s so arid and dusty. Centuries ago beautiful women were decapitated and their heads offered to the gods to please them, in the hope they’d send rain. Watch out, beautiful women . . .
Cacti in the field to the left, playing host to cochineal bugs, look withered and brown. Splashes of cerise on a thriving bougainvillea are probably thanks to ancient Nazca people. Fifteen hundred or so years after they were built, the ancient underground water system here, known as the Cantalloc Aqueducts, is still used by farmers. How did the Nazca people know water flowed underground here?
Did water diviners walking the desert find it?
I follow the spiralling path down into one of a series of grey rock-lined puquios, or wells, and find clear water in the small opening at the bottom. In the shape of inverted monster snail shells
15-20m apart, some 7m deep, the puquios look like giant plugholes in the earth. Recent studies suggest the spirals pull air into the underground tunnels between them which moves the water through the network. The puquios also bring light and air to whomever over the centuries has cleaned the stone and wood-lined tunnels between each, so water remains pure.
From the puquios, water travels out into open zig-zagged channels lined with stones. The zig-zag formation slows the water in flood times stopping the banks being destroyed. Either there’s been no flooding or the Nazca knew what they were doing — the channels are still intact. Not far away I glimpse the water reservoir among a green area of potato and other crops, like a mini oasis.
Leaving the aqueducts, we travel through more sand-brown desert. Here and there ranges of crumpled-looking reddish brown rounded hills or a green valley break the monotony. Dotted along the highway are single-storey, paint-faded, concrete homes, their two windows like dark eyes looking out. Something black lies drying in the sun nearby a few. Possibly it’s seaweed. The coast is not so far away, about 50km.
Dust from a passing bus billows in our open windows. We’re on a dirt road heading to Cahuachi Pyramids, 30km from Nazca. Who knew Peru had pyramids? Not me.
Abandoned in the fifth or sixth century AD, they look more like dirt mounds with walls, terraces and steps built on them. The mud bricks forming the structures are of differing shapes
and sizes. Three pyramids have been restored, excavations having been carried out over the past 25 years, but money is short and nobody is working today. In fact, there is nobody around but us. Our guide imparts lots of information, which is great because there is no signage. There’s also no shade and under cloudless skies I can’t concentrate in the heat. In the distance Cerro Blanco, the world’s highest known sand dune — 2078m above sea level — towers white above hills in varying shades of brown. At 1176m from bottom to top it’s not somewhere I’d want to climb at this time of the day.
Leaving what feels like a ghost town, we drive further south to Chauchilla Cemetery, down a dirt road off the Panamericana highway. The cemetery dates back to the IcaChincha culture about 1000AD. It has as many people as the pyramids and aqueducts. The brown flatness, with a few white specks here and there, is broken only by red and pink tinged hills nearby and 13 dark brown thatched roofs. It’s 1pm and the heat has sapped my energy. Dragging our feet, heads down against the stinging, relentless blasting of sand and wind, we head for a thatched roof. The shade is heaven. I look down into the 2m-deep pit the roof covers. An empty eye-socketed mummy stares back.
Did he, or she, die laughing or screaming? The mummy sits with knees drawn up beneath a still intact woven burial cloth, which resembles a poncho. The other thatched roofs cover more pits, some like small rooms. The arid environment has preserved the textiles well. Some burial cloths still have colour, a hint of red, a little orange, one a deep burgundy. Through a tattered one I glimpse leathery legs, quite possibly those of a man, men had wider cheekbones and larger eye sockets than women. The resin the bodies were painted with has helped preserve their skin. Some wear headbands over black hair twisted thick like heavy rope, somehow still attached to chalkwhite skulls. It hangs down backs, snaking around legs. Not a grey hair is in sight, possibly because life was short back then, apparently between 30-40 years.
The area has been plundered by grave robbers over time. The burial pits are a reconstruction. The mummies, with up to three in each pit, face east as they would have been buried. Remains of bowls and pots, needed in the afterlife are arranged before them. They look as if they’re about to enjoy a meal. I’m thankful I wasn’t around in IncaChincha times when told that if the husband died first his wife would be killed so they could be together for eternity.
I’m also thankful I’ve got company in this middleof-nowhere burial site. The grimacing skulls are a little creepy and those white things I saw dotted across the brown landscape are apparently bones. Thousands lie exposed across the desert unearthed by grave robbers. Alone, I’d be watching my back half expecting the dead to rise. As we drive away, a layer of brown grime on my skin, I survey the desert and wonder what else from ancient civilisations lies beneath centuries of brown dirt.