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Nasca, an introduction

by The British Museum
South America has witnessed the emergence of some of the most intriguing and diverse ancient cultures in the world.

Nasca

Nasca culture flourished on the coastal plain of southern Peru between 200 B.C.E. and 600 C.E. The main centers were concentrated in the valleys of Acarí, Ica, Nasca, Pisco and Chincha. The capital, Cahuachi, one of the largest Nasca centers, was located inland on the south bank of the Nazca River and had agricultural terraces and public buildings made of adobe. Other known sites are Dos Palmos, Huaca del Loro, Cerro Soldado and Tambo Viejo.
Border from an embroidered mantle, 200 B.C.E. – 600 C.E., Paracas © Trustees of the British Museum
Border from an embroidered mantle , 200 B.C.E. – 600 C.E., Peru © Trustees of the British Museum

Geoglyphs

Very large drawings (geoglyphs), traced on the desert near the modern town of Nasca, first brought this culture to public attention. The "Nasca lines" depict animals (such as fish, reptiles, birds and monkeys), geometrical designs and human figures. Some of the drawings are a hundred meters or more in length and can only be seen without distortion from the air. Their meaning and function are still debated, but are thought to be linked to the location of aquifers and springs
The iconography and symbolism represented by the Nasca lines are mirrored on polychrome pottery and textiles, with motifs portraying local fauna and plants, scenes related to subsistence activities, supernatural beings and deities associated with water and agricultural fertility. Water was vital for Nasca subsistence, which depended mainly on a diet of maize. The rivers were not a reliable source to sustain the levels needed to feed the local population and a network of irrigation canals made it possible to practice intensive agriculture.

Pottery

Double spout and bridge pottery vessel with a bird deity (front and side view), Nasca culture (200 B.C.E. - 600 C.E.), Peru, 30 x 21 cm © Trustees of the British Museum
Double spout and bridge pottery vessel with a bird deity (front and side view), 200 B.C.E. - 600 C.E., Nasca culture, 30 x 21 cm, Peru © Trustees of the British Museum
This globular jar depicts a fantastic bird in flight with a human face, adorned with a mouth mask and a diadem. The bird holds a human trophy head. Ritual beheading was a common practice in the Andes and scenes of decapitation can be seen painted on Nasca vessels.
Not all birds depicted in Nasca art can be identified to a particular species. Some representations are quite naturalistic, while others combine fantastic and anthropomorphic elements. Certain birds are still revered in the Andean region today. The people of the modern town of Nasca believe that the condor and other birds, such as the pelican and the heron, are manifestations of the mountain gods. To catch sight of one of these birds means that rain will fall in the mountains.
The technique and range of colors used on this large vessel mark the peak of Nasca achievements. The number of colors used by Nasca artists is larger than that used by any other culture in the Americas before European contact.
Spout and bridge vessel in the shape of a dog, Nasca culture (200 B.C.E. - 600 C.E.), Peru, 12 x 15.5 x 8 cm © Trustees of the British Museum
Spout and bridge vessel in the shape of a dog, 200 B.C.E. - 600 C.E., Nasca culture, 12 x 15.5 x 8 cm, Peru © Trustees of the British Museum
Vessels modeled into animals or edible plants are a common form in Nasca art. The vessel is painted in three colors: black, brown and white. A limited range of colors was used in the early phases of the Nasca cultural sequence, while at least ten were used in later phases. The most common shapes are bowls, dishes, vases and vessels with one or two spouts and bridge.
The innovative techniques and aesthetic qualities of Nasca polychrome ceramics make them quite unique in the Andean region. They were most commonly made by coiling. Slip was then applied, and the vessel was fired and burnished to a characteristic glossy finish. The slip was made from different mineral pigments such as manganese (black) and iron oxide (red). Their use represents an innovation on previous resin painting and ensured the endurance of the painted motifs.

Suggested readings:
A.F. Aveni, Nasca: Eighth Wonder of the World (London, The British Museum Press, 2000).
K.O. Bruhns, Ancient South America (Cambridge, 1994).
D.A. Proulx, "Paracas and Nasca: Regional Cultures on the South Coast of Peru," in Helaine Silverman and William H. Isbell (eds) The Handbook of South American Archaeology (New York, 2008) pp. 563–585.
M.E. Moseley, The Incas and Their Ancestors: The Archaeology of Peru (London, 2001).
J. Reinhard, "Interpreting the Nazca Lines," The Ancient Americas (The Art Institute of Chicago, 1992), pp. 291-302. 
H. Silverman, Cahuachi in the Ancient Nasca (University of Iowa Press, 1993).
R. Stone-Miller, Art of the Andes: from Chavín (London: Thames & Hudson, 1995). 
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Want to join the conversation?

  • old spice man green style avatar for user Don Spence
    Do we know for what purpose the double spout and bridge pottery was used?
    (6 votes)
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  • piceratops sapling style avatar for user vjlida93
    The geoglyphs fascinate me since the people who made them would never be able to fully see their work. So, 1. How exactly were they made? Especially to last thousands of years that they have. 2. "Their meaning and function are still debated, but are thought to be linked to the location of aquifers and springs." Can anyone give me more details on this theory? (Or any other theories on their meaning?) I thought they were made to honor the culture's gods, since the gods would be the only one to see the geoglyphs at the time. Thank you!
    (4 votes)
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    • piceratops seed style avatar for user claytonbryan559
      The top layer of gravel contained iron, causing oxidization and a darkening of color over time. By removing the top layer of gravel, the lighter gravel below was exposed. Actually, many of the geoglyphs can be seen from overlooking hilltops. The contrary misconception leads people to believe the "alien" or "shamanistic" theories. In most cases the lines lead to water, and the images may represent a clans territory.
      (6 votes)
  • hopper cool style avatar for user Madeliv
    Why are the Nasca geoglyphs and the border of the embroidered mantle highly stylized and very angular, while the pottery from the same period has a different style and appears to use much rounder and more naturalistic shapes?
    (4 votes)
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  • leafers ultimate style avatar for user gregoryedgington
    why is there a dog-like creature? is it some sort of vase? if it is how was it made? who made it?
    (2 votes)
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  • leaf orange style avatar for user Jeff Kelman
    I always wonder what tools the ancient peoples may have used for mathematical accuracy? Is there any speculation? Rulers of some kind? I know that the geometric shapes used here on the "embroidered mantle" seem to be perfectly symmetrical, but that could just be to the human eye. Is this symmetrical to the millimeter?
    (2 votes)
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  • male robot donald style avatar for user Liam
    That's interesting, Any other designs?
    (1 vote)
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  • duskpin sapling style avatar for user Ailene Tan
    Why were colors limited for the paintings of the vessels? Does that mean Nasca art was dull and "boring-ish" other than bright and vivid?
    (1 vote)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user jiffyfox
    Polychrome use was also part of Anastasi culture is it possible there is a connection?
    (0 votes)
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  • leaf orange style avatar for user Talha
    Hello I enrolled in this by a mistake .Is there a way to unrol it .Or remove it frome my profile ?
    (0 votes)
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