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Nazca Coastal Culture in Western South America

The Nazca (or Nasca) is the name of the archeological culture that flourished in the southern coast of Peru between 100 BC and 650 AD. The Nazca coastal culture in Western South America is recorded on the Bible Timeline Chart with World History between 400 BC – 1000 AD. It was named after the Rio Grande de Nasca and located between the Ica and Nasca valleys. The Nazcas were related to the earlier Paracas culture which played a significant role in the development of their society as seen in both cultures’ art and religion.

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The weather in this coastal area was influenced by the Humboldt current which would bring fog but kept the area a dry sub-tropical desert. The Nazca people depended on agriculture, but the land was particularly prone to droughts, earthquakes, and flooding. They still managed to produce corn, beans, manioc, potatoes, sweet potatoes, peppers, and squash which became their staple foods. Cotton and wool from llamas and other highland animals were sources for textiles and were used for trade with other people. The Pacific Ocean was a good source of seals, fishes, and other seafood.

The Nazca people traded with other communities in Peru including the coastal Camaná province; grave goods identified as Nazca were found at cemeteries in the area. The use of wool from llamas and other highland animals were also present in Nazca sites. There were also feathers of rain forest birds that decorated the headdress of Nazca mummies.

Nazca geoglyph of a hummingbird

Their villages were clustered from the Cañete Valley to Acari Valley with Nazca at its center. These villages were led by chieftains who were united through their religion, but there is no evidence of an important ruler or a central government. The chieftains served as shamans as well as warriors. Their depictions can frequently be seen on colorful Nazca pottery. They led Nazca rituals and usually used hallucinogenic drugs that were common in Peruvian culture. These drugs were derived from the San Pedro cactus (mescaline) and Angel’s trumpet tree.

Religion played a big part in the lives of the Nazca people, especially when they lived in an area that was prone to the above listed natural disasters. They also believed in animatism. These supernatural forces were evident in their ceramic arts. These had colorful depictions of mythological creatures that were believed to control their food and water supplies. The prominent religious center of the Nazca people was located in the Cahuachi, where remnants of pyramid temples can be found. It first served as a pilgrimage and burial site until it was used as a mortuary and offering area.

The most enduring legacy of the Nazca culture was the geoglyphs in Pampa de San Jose. These mysterious glyphs of unknown purposes were drawn on the desert surface to reveal the lighter soil underneath. The drawings vary from simple lines to a complicated representation of animals including a pelican, monkey, killer whale, hummingbird, and more. Whether it was for astronomical purposes or to indicate past water sources, the reason for the existence of these glyphs is still a mystery.

King, Heidi, and Delgado Pérez Ma. Mercedes. Peruvian Featherworks: Art of the Precolumbian Era. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012
Proulx, Donald A. Sourcebook of Nasca Ceramic Iconography: Reading a Culture Through Its Art. University of Iowa Press, 2006
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