The Nasca Lines Project (1996-2000)


Starting in 1996 I collaborated with David Johnson, a teacher, videographer and independent scholar from Poughkeepsie, New York, on a project linking the famous Nasca Lines or geoglyphs with sources of subterranean water. Dave and I met by accident in the Nasca Valley when I was doing preliminary research for my 1998 archaeological survey of the lower drainage.

In 1995, while visiting Nasca as a tourist, Johnson became aware of the scarcity of water in the region and the effect that this had on agricultural production and the quality of life. A self-taught dowser, he convinced many individuals in the town of Nasca of his ability to locate subterranean water. In 1995 he was asked to return the following year to locate additional water sources for the community. During the summer of 1996 when he returned, he began to study the ancient wells or puquios in the region and became aware of a correlation of these water resources with nearby archaeological sites.

In 1996, when I arrived in Nasca and discovered that the vehicle I had rented in Lima was unsuitable to reach remote areas of the drainage, the local Catholic priest, Father David Ritter, with whom Johnson was staying, offered me the use of his ancient Volkswagen. Johnson eagerly agreed to serve as the driver, and we spent six days intensively exploring many parts of the drainage. I introduced him to the archaeology of the region and how the sites can be dated from the study of the architecture, surface pottery and other artifacts. One of the characteristic features of the Nasca Culture, that dominated the drainage from 100 B.C. to 650 A.D., was the famous "Nasca Lines."

The Nasca Lines or geoglyphs have been the focus of debate for over 70 years. These ground drawings consist of giant geometric forms (triangles, trapezoids, parallel lines) as well as biomorphs (birds, plants, and mammals) etched into the surface of the desert of southern Peru, especially in the drainage of the Rio Grande de Nasca. The geoglyphs were constructed by clearing the surface of small stones darkened by desert varnish, exposing the lighter soil beneath. Some of the geoglyphs are over a kilometer in extent and are located in all parts of the drainage, although many are concentrated on the Pampa de San Jose. The majority of the lines can be dated to the Nasca Culture, although some may be later. Many theories have been proposed to explain the function of the lines, but none of these connected the geoglyphs to subsurface water flow and to structural geology and hydrology.

After I left Peru for home in 1996, Johnson continued his water research. He proceeded to map the location of all the puquios and the position of all the high yield wells in the central area of the Nasca Valley. What he found was a strong spatial correlation: where there were puquios there were clusters of high-yield wells that were reliable sources of water throughout the year. As this mapping progressed over the course of the summer another correlation began to emerge. Where there were alluvial gravels, high-yield wells and/or puquios, he found that these subterranean water sources seemed to be marked by geoglyphs.

He argued that trapezoids lay directly over what he calls veins, but which more accurately are zones of higher permeability materials consisting of coarser gravels associated with distributary channels in the alluvial material. Johnson claims that the width of the trapezoids defined the width of the zone capable of transmitting ground water. A zigzag pattern located along the boundary of a trapezoid indicated there was no water and defined the boundary of the water flow. Triangular geoglyphs pointed to sources of water. The last correlation that he noted was that there were always archaeological sites affiliated with geological features, puquios and wells.

Johnson's Hypothesis

These observations led to a new working hypothesis for the function of the Nasca lines that was different from any previous idea: geological faults and alluvial gravels provide pathways for ground water flow, and they transmit water as a zone of concentrated flow into the valleys. These geological features collect water in one part of the drainage and conduct it across and down the valleys to locations where it can be reached by digging puquios or wells, or to locations where the water table is high enough for springs or seepage to be present on the surface. The ancient people realized they could find a reliable source of fresh water at these locations and that is where they established their habitation sites. Johnson claims the ancient Nasca marked the flow of subterranean water with geoglyphs. He argued that there are five factors that are consistently found together: geological faults and/or higher permeability sands and gravels with the alluvial fans, archaeological sites, an aquifer, a source of fresh water (spring, seep, puquio, or well), and the geoglyphs that mark their location. Where one or more of these features are found there is a high probability the others are present.

After Dave returned from Peru in 1996 and explained his hypothesis to me, I recommended that he collaborate with professional geologists since the scientific community would be very skeptical of his findings that were largely based on dowsing.

I returned to Peru in 1997 to further investigate the area of my projected surface survey, to reacquaint myself with the area where I had not done field archaeology in almost 35 years, and to consult with colleagues. I again spent the majority of my time with Johnson and volunteers who had joined him. I was able to visit more of the remote parts of the drainage and participated in the discovery of many new geoglyphs which Johnson had a knack for finding. Dave began contacting geologists and hydrologists to participate in the project. He secured funding from the National Geographic Society for his water research in 1998, and I was awarded a grant from the H. John Heinz III trust to undertake my archaeological survey of the lower Nasca and Rio Grande rivers:

Download the 1998 Nasca Survey Report here.

Testing the Hypothesis

In 1998, supported by these two sources of funding, an interdisciplinary team of geologists and archaeologists took the first steps to scientifically test Johnson's hypothesis. The team was composed of Johnson, myself as principal archaeologist, geologists Stephen Mabee and Hillary Barber of the University of Massachusetts, and Rick Ponti, a geologist from the private sector. The Department of Geosciences at the University of Massachusetts provided a variety of scientific equipment including a seismic refraction unit, magnetometer, total station, a resistivity unit, and an assortment of water analysis equipment.

While my team of students and I were conducting the archaeological survey of the lower Nasca and Rio Grande Rivers, Johnson and the geologists chose the Aja region of the Nasca Valley as their primary survey area. Due to the complex geology of this area Mabee needed to determine which equipment could provide the most accurate data. This region, located just north of the city of Nasca along the Aja River, incorporated all the features necessary to test the hypothesis. Their goal was to obtain scientific evidence to prove:

  1. Faults and alluvial gravels intersect the valleys and often conduct water through aquifers (concentrated zones of higher permeability deposits capable of conveying groundwater),
  2. Aquifers supply water to the puquios through these alluvial gravels including geological faults, and
  3. Geoglyphs map the course of the aquifers.

The results of this preliminary work seemed positive, and Mabee returned to the Nasca drainage in 1999 accompanied by graduate student Janna Levin to further test the hypothesis with additional field investigations. I was no longer directly involved in the field activities.

First, the relationship between groundwater resources and the Nasca lines was studied at five widely separated locations within the Rio Grande de Nasca drainage basin to determine if the correlation observed at Cerro Aja and in the vicinity of the city of Nasca was consistent from one tributary to another. This test was designed to determine whether or not this relationship was ubiquitous throughout a single drainage basin. In addition to the previous work at Aja, the five sites selected for evaluation were: 1) La Muña, Rio Grande; 2) La Portada, Rio Viscas; 3) Silverman Site 9, Rio Ingenio; 4) Hacienda Taruga, Rio Taruga; and 5) Cerro Colorado at the confluence of the Rios Grande and Nasca. These sites were selected because they are widely separated and because preliminary surveys indicate that they each contained evidence for geological faults, fresh water, geoglyphs and archaeological sites. At each site, the following standard geological and hydrogeological investigations were performed:

  1. Lineament analysis of satellite imagery to locate bedrock structures and faults
  2. Mapping to verify geology and the nature of bedrock faults
  3. Geophysical surveying with resistivity profiling equipment and electromagnetic induction to map subsurface faults as they cross the valleys and to locate the position of puquios.
  4. Archaeological investigations to date and determine the basic function of each site and to confirm the association of geoglyphs with the sites
  5. Surveying to measure water levels and map surface and subsurface features; and
  6. Basic water quality sampling to help fingerprint the source of the subterranean water moving through the faults and sediments. A map was to be prepared for each site documenting the location of faults, archaeological sites, water sources (wells, aquifers, puquios), and geoglyphs).

Second, to validate the hypothesis, the geologists traced some of the major fault systems from their origin in the foothills of the Andes across the pampa to their intersection with major river drainages. At these locations they hoped to find evidence of faults, habitations, geoglyphs, and a source of fresh water.

Third, as further verification, they planned to target one location where the correlation between geoglyphs, faults and archaeological sites was conclusive. The plan was to then drill a water well on that target. If the hypothesis was true, the well should produce a source of fresh water. As early as 1997 Johnson had begun negotiations with Rotary International and the Rotary Clubs in the U.S. and Peru to acquire a drilling rig to be used to provide new sources of water for communities in the Nasca area. Eventually the equipment was shipped from the U.S., but because of customs bureaucracy in Peru, the rig was not available for use during the summer of 1999 but was used by Johnson in later years.

Fourth, no one had surveyed the geology, hydrology and geoglyphs of the lower Rio Grande from Coyungo to the Pacific coast. A preliminary examination of this region was completed in 1999 and involved ground and air surveys of the valley and pampa to the south. Satellite imagery proved very useful in distinguishing geological features; it is a shame that Google Earth was not available at that time, for this new tool would have been invaluable.

Johnson and Steven Mabee returned to Peru in 2000, 2001 and 2002, accompanied by additional geologists including Dr, Kenneth Hardcastle from Emery and Garrett Groundwater, Inc (see and Dr. Donald Wise, Professor of Geology at the University of Massachusetts. I was unable to accompany these individuals to Peru during these trips, but the scope of their work was purely geological, and I had completed my archaeological survey and was preparing my reports. Among the areas they investigated was the region known as the Cresta de Sacramento in the Palpa Valley which has since been mapped in three dimensions by a team of German scientists (for more information go to the following web site: In 2006 Karsten Lambers published his dissertation on the geoglyphs of this region, and this report contains a wealth of information, maps and photographs of the ground etchings:

The Results

Following five years of research by various teams of geologists, the validity of Johnson's hypothesis has met with mixed results. Stephen Mabee and several of his graduate students analyzed the data on the correlation of the geoglyphs with faults containing subterranean water. Smith conducted an analysis comparing the trend of lineaments and faults with the trend of various geoglyphs, such as triangles and trapezoids, to determine if the correlation was statistically significant. Results indicate that the correlation between the trend of lineaments/faults and geoglyphs is not statistically significant. Any correlation appears to be coincidental. A much more significant correlation was expected. Geoglyphs may still have a relationship to subsurface water. However, a direct relationship between lineaments/faults and geoglyphs is not apparent (see Levin, 2000 and Smith, 2003). Johnson rebuts this conclusion by arguing that Smith's study did not include all the factors regarding the location of the geoglyphs and the flow of groundwater in the alluvium. On the other hand, some geoglyphs do indeed seem to be associated with water, both surface and subterranean water. Johan Reinhard (1996) has argued that there is a "direct relationship between the Nasca Lines, the worship of mountain deities, rainfall, water supply and agricultural fertility." He too feels that some of the geoglyphs point to sources of water and served as connectors between water sources, including mountains like Cerro Blanco, and sacred areas where fertility rites were carried out. In my opinion Johnson has demonstrated that some geoglyphs are associated with water-conducting faults and alluvial gravels and mark the location of ancient water sources.

There are many controversial aspects to this project, the primary one being Johnson's initial reliance on dowsing to locate subterranean water along with the width, depth and boundaries of the flow. Another is his argument that some geoglyphs were cognitive and physical maps of the drainage's subsurface water. Others dispute his hypothesis as being too simplistic. Johnson contends that after making the connection between water and geoglyphs, he can now use the geoglyphs themselves, along with his knowledge of geology and hydrology, to find water. He has been hired as a consultant by agencies in Nasca, Ica and Chile, among others, and has successfully located water sources that are now being used by local communities.

Whether or not one accepts his hypothesis, Johnson should be given credit for his tenacious research on the geoglyphs, wells, puquios and other water sources in the Nasca drainage. The hydrological data he collected and the many new geoglyphs he discovered in the Nasca drainage are of great importance to the archaeological and geological communities. Although geoglyphs had been known in other Peruvian valleys for decades, Johnson has surveyed other locations and has discovered new geoglyphs in the Ica, Rimac, Supe and Casma valleys in Peru, and more recently has been conducting research on the north coast of Chile. Although there will always be some critics of his ideas and methodology, Johnson's data is important and should be made available to scholars. He is currently in the process of writing a book documenting his discoveries. Some of these findings are already available on Johnson's web site at:

One of the positive results of the research is a much better understanding of the geology and hydrology of the Ro Grande de Nasca drainage. Johnson, Mabee and the other geologists clearly demonstrated that in addition to the annual discharge of water in the rivers, the ancient occupants of the valley had secondary sources of water that allowed them to survive during the many months where no water flowed from the mountains and during times of drought. This water was obtained from springs, seeps, and tapping into the water table with a system of wells and canals known as puquios. They demonstrated that some water entered the main valley as groundwater flow through the alluvial fans located in many of the lower elevation drainages that enter from the side valleys. Some of the water entering the main valley from the sides is at a higher elevation than the main river valleys. Chemical analysis of the water suggested that nearly all the water has a meteoric source and much of it is carried within the gravels of the main east west rivers. However, some water clearly has its source during the infrequent but regular rainfalls that occur in some of the lower elevation catchments that flank the main river valleys. The infiltrated water in these side valleys provides an additional slug of water to the springs, seeps, wells and puquios located in the main agricultural zones of the valley. The one exception is Cerro Colorado. The springs at this location have a unique chemical signature that suggests these waters traveled along a different flow path. It is likely these waters are traveling along the major structure located at Cerro Colorado (see Carlson, 2003). The large habitation sites at Cerro Colorado were established at or near locations where the supplementary water came to the surface. In addition to their investigations of the hydrology of the Nasca and the Rio Grande de Nasca valleys, the geologists conducted a thorough survey of the geology of the Cresta de Sacramento in the Palpa Valley (Mabee 2003). Slowly we are getting a better understanding of the role of water by ancient societies in this area, its varied sources, how they obtained it, and how the geoglyphs might be part of the equation.

Nasca Lines Bibliography

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