Remembering Maria Reiche, who devoted her life to investigating Peru’s Nazca Lines
Who was the German women who devoted her life to Peru’s mysterious Nazca lines?
Maria Reiche (1903-1998) was a German mathematician known for her pioneering work into Peru’s ancient Nazca lines. She was born in Dresden 115 years ago today.
Reiche became obsessed with solving one of Latin America’s greatest mysteries why did the land’s ancient people carve giant bird and animal geoglyphs into the desert plains?
She had first arrived in Peru in 1932 after completing her studies, to take care of the children of the German consul in Cuzco.
She quickly fell in love with the country of Peru and rich cultural and historical diversity – despite losing a finger after being pricked by a cactus and serious infection when visiting the Andes and the high plains of southern Peru before relocating to Lima in 1934.
In Lima Maria Reiche encountered New York academic Paul Kosok in a coffee shop. It was him who introduced her to the strange line drawings of creatures in the sands of Nazca. First discovered by Peruvian archaeologist Toribio Mejia Xesspe a decade earlier, Kosok had photographed them from the air and showing their true form.
Maria Reiche was very intrigued by the precise geometric designs and visited the 1000km2 site with massive zoomorphic figures including a humming bird, spider, whale and many others. When she saw that the figures of the monkey and the hands only had 9 fingers, just like herself. She saw this as a sign and committed herself to the study of these mysterious lines at Kosok’s side.
Spending many nights camping in the desert, Maria Reiche became an object of curiosity herself: «The locals thought I was completely mad» she said, when they saw her in the desert moving stones, and they would leave her food. Maria built a hut in the desert (you can stil visit it) and lived there without running water or electricity for 40 years. She spent her days climbing ladders, mapping the lines, cleaning them and doing endless mathematical calculations to try to figure out their significance.
Reiche and Kosok’s study of the Nazca Lines in the 1940’s led to the dramatic conclusion that the beasts were actually roughly equivalent to the signs of the zodiac and that they together comprised an early astronomical calendar, mapping out the celestial bodies in the heavens.
Her book: The Mystery of the Pampas (1949) detailed the theory that the giant monkey geoglyph was the Nazca interpretation of the constellation whose movement across the night sky was used to mark time and predict the onset of the rainy season. Her work debunked a myth popularised by Swiss conspiracy theorist Erich von Daniken that they were made by extraterrestrials.
Although Reiche’s conclusion has now been largely sidelined in favour of the idea that the geoglyphs served a more earth-bound ceremonial purpose, she nevertheless played a vital role in preserving them. Maria Reiche insisted the Peruvian government in making the Nazca Lines’ location into a national park in the 1950’s and she fought the local and national bureaucraties to prevent irrigation canals to be digged across the middle of the Nazca pampa and she ensured that the Nazca Lines were received a UNESCO World Heritage Site protected status in 1994.
«The Lady of the Lines» spent her last 25 years living in a room in the Hotel Nazca Lines in this small city. Nowadays you can visit a planetarium to learn about her theory in a 45-minute lecture. The hotel is full of people who knew her. With a whisper to the front desk, you can get the key to the room she lived in and catch a glimpse of her quarters and hear stories too.
Maria was carried by her assistant on the lines when she couldn’t walk any more, to keep studying them.
Maria Reiche was granted Peruvian citizenship in 1992 and published her complete scientific findings Contributions to Geometry and Astronomy in Ancient Peru in 1993 at the age of 90. She died of ovarian cancer in June 1998 at the age of 95, she was blind and had skin cancer from the 60 years working under the desert sun. It was said that she lectured to hotel visitors weekly until the very end.
«The Lady of the Desert» became a very beloved figure in Peru and respected all over the country.
On the wall outside her room, a plaque reads: «If I had a hundred lifetimes, I would have given them to Nazca. And if I had to make a thousand sacrifices, I would have made them, if for Nazca.» – Maria Reiche
In a beautiful park dedicated to her in Lima, carved in a stone you can read the words of Maria Reiche that resume it all:
«It would be to have a very low opinion of our ancestors, to suppose that all this immense and meticulously accurate and detailed work, done with conscientious perfection, had as its sole purpose the service of a primitive superstition or a sterile cult of the ancestors. Here we have the testimony on a large scale and unique in the world of the first awakening of the exact sciences in the evolution of humanity, a gigantic effort of the primitive mind that is reflected in the greatness of the execution under the vast sky of the immense and lonely desert planes, swept by the wind and burnt by the sun.» – Maria Reiche.
If you want to visit Nazca and learn more about Maria Reiche and the fascinating Nazca pre-inca culture, you may contact us at Vamos Expeditions, there is a lot to explore around Nazca and beyond.
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