Nasca Valley Survey

    The Rio Grande de Nasca drainage on the south coast of Peru consists of ten distinct tributaries, all of which eventually merge with the Rio Grande forming the largest and most complex river system in this part of the country. This area of over 10,750 square kilometers was the homeland of a series of ancient cultures which excelled in their ability to adapt to the harsh desert conditions and perennial lack of water confronting them in this desolate region. None of these early Peruvian societies possessed a writing system, and therefore only archaeology can provide the means of reconstructing their lifeways and an understanding of their nature and complexity. Scientific excavation in the drainage, however, has been infrequent and of limited scope compared to the high volume of illegal looting that continues to this day.

    During the past two decades a number of systematic archaeological surveys have been undertaken to record all the sites in the valley prior to their further destruction and to use this data to describe the function, size and dates for each site based on surface architecture and artifacts. Once the location of the sites are plotted on a topographic map, inferences can be made about the settlement patterns for each culture and the most important sites can be selected for future excavation or protection. Major surveys have been made of the Palpa and Viscas tributaries by David Browne and his colleagues (Browne and Baraybar 1988; Browne 1992); the Ingenio River by Helaine Silverman (1993); the Aja, Tierras Blancas, Taruga and Trancas by Katharina Schreiber (Schreiber and Lancho 1996); and the littoral zone by Patrick Carmichael (1991). The last major portion of the drainage that had not received systematic attention was a U-shaped area consisting of the lower portion of the Rio Nasca from Usaca to its confluence with the Rio Grande, and the lower Rio Grande from Cabildo to Maijo Grande including the Coyungo area. After careful consideration, I decided to explore this area because of its critical geographical location and its potential for answering a number of questions about the Nasca Culture of the Early Intermediate Period (1-650 A.D.)

    During the summers of 1996 and 1997, I made preliminary trips into this region to determine the feasibility of conducting a full scale survey. Although the terrain was rugged and roads primitive to non-existent, I decided to move forward and apply for funding for the project. My objectives for the research were fourfold. First, I wanted to record all the sites in the survey area in an attempt to complete the coverage of the major portions of the drainage. I have visions of collaborating with the other scholars to combine our data in order to put together a comprehensive report on all the major sites in the drainage. Second, I hoped to find evidence of Nasca habitation sites which could lead to a better interpretation of the socio-political organization of Nasca society. Most research up to this point has been on Nasca ceremonial sites or cemeteries; little is known about the nature of Nasca habitations sites. Third, in collaboration with my colleague David Johnson, I wanted to investigate the correlation of the sites with water sources (springs or pukios) and these with the "Nasca Lines" or geoglyphs. Finally, I hoped to investigate the major routes connecting the agricultural area inland with the coast to demonstrate the role of maritime resources in the Nasca diet.  

    With the financial support of a grant from the H. John Heinz III Charitable Fund, I spent the months of June, July and August 1998 in Peru undertaking the survey described above. I was fortunate in being able to rent a new four wheel drive jeep from a friend in Lima at a very reasonable coast. My base of operation was the town of Nasca where we had rooms in an inexpensive but comfortable Hostal. I was assisted by a Peruvian graduate student, Ana Nieves, who is currently studying at the University of Texas. She worked with me for the majority of the field season and was of invaluable help. I also sponsored two Peruvian undergraduate students from the Universidad Nacional "San Luis Gonzaga" in Ica. Henry Falcón Amado and Miriam Gavilán Roayza worked with me for one week apiece during with time they learned the basic techniques of archaeological survey. I was also assisted by other students and local guides including Tonya Panion, a graduate student from the University of Massachusetts, Alonzo Lancho, a Peruvian undergraduate student and Amy Groleau, a recent Anthropology major at the University of Massachusetts.

    I was able to purchase a set of aerial photographs from the Peruvian  National Aerial Photography Service at a scale of 1:10,000. These sheets were attached to a wooden board and covered with a transparent mylar overlay sheet on which sites were recorded as they were found. A complete set of topographic maps at scales of 1:50,000 and 1:100,000 were used along with a GPS (Global Positioning System) instrument which provided the exact latitude and longitude of each site we recorded--information which can be transferred to the topographic maps. I also had NASA satellite maps of the entire area at a scale of 1:100,000 which provided wonderful detail on the geology and hydrology of the region.

    We began the survey in the lower Rio Nasca, first working our way down the valley to the confluence and then returning to cover the basin up through the Quebrada of Usaca. A total of 13 sites was recorded in the Usaca area and another 51 sites in the Rio Nasca proper. Later we moved to the Rio Grande, gradually working our way down valley though Mal Paso, Batanes, Coyungo and Las Brujas on the way to Maijo Grande. We found 64 sites on this Rio Grande segment, making a grand total of 128 sites recorded on the survey. We later discovered that a short segment of the Rio Grande, from Changillo at the juncture of the Rio Ingenio and the Rio Grande, down to Vincente near the mouth of the Rio Nasca had never been completely surveyed. Although students from the University in Ica had indicated that they had completely surveyed this sector, only a few selected sites had been recorded by them. Thus a little additional work needs to be done to make the survey of the drainage complete.

    Surface collections of artifacts were made at each site, especially diagnostic ceramics, to be used for accurately dating the remains. These artifacts were cleaned, numbered and then photographed prior to storing them in cloth bags. Peruvian law prohibits the export of cultural material, and therefore these materials must either be analyzed in Peru or from the individual photographs taken before leaving. We deposited our 9 cartons of artifacts at the Museo Regional de Ica in their storage area on shelves which I had to have constructed at my cost. As part of our obligation under the permit granted by the Instituto Nacional de Cultura, a fee of $50 per day was paid for each day we worked in the field as partial support for a Peruvian archaeological supervisor to oversee our work. This fee was paid by the National Geographic Society as part of the grant awarded to David Johnson for his work with the Nasca Lines.

    Work on analyzing the data from the survey is continuing and will not be completed for about one year. Below is an account of some of the preliminary findings and questions raised by the research. The 128 sites recorded ranged in date from the Early Horizon (900-200 B.C.) to the Late Horizon (1476-1532).

Number of Sites
Early Horizon
900-200 BC
Early Intermediate Period
200 BC - AD 650
69 cemetery
22 habitation
Middle Horizon
N-9, Atarco
650 - 900 AD
14 cemetery
23 habitation
Late Intermediate Period
Carrizal, Poroma
900 - 1476 AD
54 cemetery
23 habitation
Late Horizon
1476 - 1532 AD
1 habitation

* the numbers exceed 128 because many sites were multi-occupational

    Early Horizon sherds in small quantities were found in a total of 10 sites, mostly in the lower Rio Grande area. The majority of these vessels were utilitarian with decoration consisting of incised triangles with punctation, circles and dots, or braided handles. Whether these ceramics should be called "Paracas" or Tajo is based more on semantics than on major cultural differences. A beautiful Ocucaje 8 or 9 interior decorated bowl, found in the Atarco Valley by an agricultural worker, was covered with killer whales with incised outlines and resin paints. This piece and others like it have been found in various sites in the valley. Our survey did not reveal any major Early Horizon ceremonial sites--only several small multi-occupational habitation areas and cemeteries where Early Horizon sherds were part of the assemblage.

    Of the 128 sites recorded, a majority (91) had some level of Nasca occupation. Most of these sites were cemeteries (69), but several unexpected features were noted. Previously, Nasca graves were described as unlined pits in the sand in which a seated mummy bundle and funerary offerings were place, then covered with a roof of huarango beams and/or adobes. We discovered a wide variety of Nasca grave forms, including many with adobe walls, and some with thatch roofing material. Judging from recent discoveries of very deep elite Nasca tombs made at La Muña in the Palpa Valley, it appears that there was more variation in Nasca graves than once thought. Hopefully unlooted elite graves can be located and excavated in the future in order to elucidate the nature of Nasca political organization.
Contrary to my expectation of finding cemeteries separate and isolated from habitation sites, many of the cemeteries were adjacent to and an integral part of Nasca settlements.

    We had hoped to find several large Nasca urban centers in the course of the survey. Surprisingly, most of the 22 sites containing evidence of Nasca habitation could be described as small hamlets. The only exception was the multi-occupational complex of sites numbered RG-25, 56, 57 and 58 opposite the town of Coyungo which appears to be one huge urban center. Judging from the nature of the architecture and the prevalence of Late Intermediate Period pottery over the site in addition to occasional groupings of Nasca pottery, the majority of these structures are late (LIP), however, there appears to have been a substantial Nasca occupation here as well. Many of the smaller Nasca habitation sites were located near springs or "pukios" where water seeped from geological faults providing a year-round source of water. These sites were particularly prevalent in the lower Nasca Valley in the area around Santa Clara, Agua Dulce and Los Colorados, but there are also a number of pukios in the Coyungo basin. I need to compare my findings with the survey results of my colleagues in the other tributaries in order to ascertain whether we have an anomaly in my survey area, perhaps with the larger urban centers being situated in the more agriculturally productive portions of the drainage, or whether small settlements are the rule in Nasca society.

    Another surprise was the paucity of Middle Horizon sites in the survey area. Perhaps continued analysis of the surface pottery collections and a better refinement of the ceramic collections will increase this number in the future, but sites with diagnostic "Epigonal" designs were very sparse. Fourteen Middle Horizon cemeteries were recorded, most displaying the characteristic cotton mummy wrappings that are frequently found at this time period. Several elaborate Middle Horizon tombs with plastered walls painted white and having niches in the walls were found at RN-33. The Middle Horizon sites seem to be concentrated in a small area on the west side of the lower Nasca River just down river from the confluence of the Quebrada Usaca with the Rio Nasca. Only two sites seemed to have Middle Horizon habitational remains. More numerous Middle Horizon sites have been found in other parts of the drainage, including the north side of the Rio Grande Valley near Cabildo.

    Other than Nasca period sites, the Late Intermediate Period produced the second largest concentration of sites and the only ruins that could truly be called urban centers. David Robinson divided the Late Intermediate Period ceramics into two groups, Carrizal and Poroma. In the Ica Valley, Menzel built on her earlier designations of Chulpaca and Soniche, which were roughly comparable in time to Carrizal and Poroma, to construct a 10 phase sequence which she called the Ica style. Others, pointing to the similarity between these Late Intermediate Period ceramics and those of the Chincha Valley to the North, refer to the style as Chincha-Ica. Until the exact political relationship between these various valleys is better known, and until I can study and seriate the Late Intermediate Period pottery from the survey area, I will simply lump the variations into the category "Late Intermediate Period."

    There are 54 Late Intermediate Period habitation sites in the survey area, including several covering more than a square kilometer. RN 15, RN-17, RG-9, and the complex RG-56  57 and 58 fall in this category. The huge settlements of RN-15, 17 and RG-9 are were constructed on the slopes of hills, near springs or pukios, overlooking the valley below. The Coyungo complex of RG-56, 57 and 58 was built on the pampa adjacent to the river. The distinguishing feature of these late cities is the use of cobble stones as construction material. Structures of varying size along with huge open plazas are present. Obviously this was a time of population growth and the concentration of people into large centers.

    In addition to the habitation sites, 23 Late Intermediate Period cemeteries were recorded, sometimes mixed with the graves of earlier cultures. Tombs tended to be large, deep and rectangular in shape, often with adobe lining. These tombs tended to have the best preserved and most numerous organic remains such as textiles, slings, and mummies. Perhaps due to the increase in population, the size of Late Intermediate Period cemeteries was larger than those of earlier periods, and often earlier cemeteries were reused by LIP peoples.

    Only one or two sites with Inca pottery were recorded, RN-7 and the area at the base of Cerro Colorado near the confluence of the Rio Nasca with the Rio Grande where a peasant showed us a beautiful Inca Aryballoid jar found nearby. I suspect that there are many more Late Horizon sites we visited, but that the local people continued to make their characteristic LIP pottery even under Inca subjugation as was the case in the Ica Valley (see Menzel 1976). The Inca controlled this drainage from the site of Paradones on the outskirts of the modern city of Nasca. Here one can see the Cuzco style stone walls and niches and find more traces of Inca elite pottery. How extensive control was over this region and how many sites they built must be sorted out from the results of the various unpublished surveys.

    In summery, the major objects of the research were realized. Valuable new information on Nasca settlement patterns was obtained along with similar data for the other periods of occupation. This data will now be combined with the survey results from other parts of the drainage in an attempt to reconstruct the political organization of the Nasca society. One of my graduate students intends to build on my survey results to investigate the nature of the Late Intermediate Period occupation in the valley through a study of some of the large Late Intermediate Period urban centers we recorded. My survey served as the basis for the plotting of associated geoglyphs and water sources by David Johnson, working on a separate research project. Finally, we were able to demonstrate the important role of maritime resources and to trace the logical routes to the sea used by the local inhabitants.

A detailed illustrated report on this research is located on this website:

Return to Don Proulx's homepage.