Nazca civilization was one of the most splendid civilizations that can trace its origins to the coastal river valleys and high mountain basins of Peru. Nazca is closely related to the earlier Paracas culture that was centered in the Pisco and Ica Valleys, including the Paracas Peninsula. The civilization is also considered as a mere continuation of this particular culture including religious traditions, weaving technology and their way of life. The culture of the people of Nazca continued to evolve with the innovation of slip paints, shift in religious iconography, elaborate textiles etc.
The territory of the Nazca Civilization that emerged during 100 BCE to 650 AD spread from Canete Valley in the north to the Acari Valley in the South and up into the Ayacucho area in the highlands. This expansion of territory was due to prestige or trade and not colonization or military expansion. The large and flat plain occupied by the people of Nazca was known as Pampas. The Nasca people were concentrated in the Rio Grande de Nasca drainage which incorporates 9 separate tributaries covering an area of about 10,750 square kilometres.
The settlement in Nazca could be divided into two unique categories: ceremonial centres and habitation sites. The ceremonial centres were known as Cahuachi which was an artificial and semi-artificial mounds mostly modified from a natural hill and burial sites. These mounds or platforms served as pilgrimage centres too. On the other hand, the habitation sites consisted of small villages that were located around the edges of the valleys off the flood plains or hills or areas which were unsuitable for agriculture. There are no traces of monumental architecture. Cemeteries were mostly isolated from habitable areas.
Houses were constructed using a framework of poles and intertwined branches covered with a layer of mud plaster. Houses had a single entry and varied in shapes and sizes. Most houses had a fire pit in the centre of the structure. There were also traces of use of adobe for wall construction especially in Cahuachi.
Social fabric of Nazca
The society of Nazca revolved around a religious centre around Cahauchi which was the non-urban ceremonial site of earthwork mounds and plazas. A local chiefdom was the key person in the society. These ceremonial sites were the centre for rituals and feast with regard to agriculture, water, fertility etc. It is also unique for the fact that natural hills were converted into pyramid mounds by the Nazca people.
Nazca religion revolved around agriculture and fertility. The artwork depicted powerful nature god and mythical animals like killer whales, spotted cat, serpentine and other mythical beings. Shamans were the key individuals in much of the religious rituals. These Shamans were also believed to use hallucination inducing cactus to connect to spirits. Nazca people worshipped nature gods to aid in their agricultural work. During this time of worshipping, all the members of the society including from the surrounding villages would migrate to the centre and participate in the ritual.
The people of Nazca followed a partial burial system which typically means burial of bundle of limbs, caches of severed heads. In case when a head was missing, this would get replaced by a ‘head jar’ which is a ceramic jar with a human head painted on it.
Nazca’s prime economic activity was agriculture. The crops they grew included maize, squash, sweet potato, manioc and achira and non-food crops such as cotton, cocoa. Nazca people created an aqueduct system to support the agriculture activities and sustain life in general as it was an arid climate.
Nazca culture is well known for its exquisite pottery which was painted with around 15 colours. The emergence of Nazca pottery can be marked with the end of post-fire resin painting of Paracas and the beginning of use of pre-fire slip painting. Shapes of pottery included double-spout bottles, bowls, cups, vases, effigy forms and mythical creatures. Common people could obtain these potteries from the Cahuachi during rituals, feastings and pilgrimage. The paintings on the pottery included realistic subjects like fruits, plants, animals, militaristic motifs, geometric iconography etc.
The iconography and symbols on the pottery were also their means of communication since they had no writing system. Scenes of warfare, decapitation and the ritual use of human trophy heads by shamans reflect important aspects of the culture of Nazca. The Nazca were also known for its complex textiles. These textiles were woven with common motifs and included shawls, tunics, belts and bags.
Nazca lines are a series of magnificent and large line drawings of animal figures made on the dessert floor in the region. Considered a type of geoglyph, there are multiple theories why these lines were made. Many historians believe that a large number of people constructed it over an extended period of time. One such theory of why these lines were made is for the gods to look upon them from above while some suggest that these were some sort of astronomical alignments that aid the people of Nazca in the planting and harvesting of crops. However, there are still no conclusive theories on why these lines were made.
Fall of the civilization
Around 500 AD, the civilization began its downfall and by 750 AD, the civilization had fallen completely. It is believed that a major flood was responsible for the decline. Another evidence claim that the decline was further catalysed by the cutting down of Prosopis Pallida trees to be able to grow more crops. These trees played an important role in maintaining the ecology of the landscape of the region.
Another theory suggests a drought spread over a generation weakened the Nazca society that lead the Wari to conquer them. These Wari adopted a number of Nazca’s artistic traits including the settlement.