‘Lady of the Pampa’ Maria Reiche and the Nazca Lines

‘When I die, bury me in this desert’


Nobody knew the Nazca desert had hundreds of gigantic figures. For centuries, travelers had crossed over the lines, unaware of their existence. But in 1927, Peruvian archaeologist Toribio Mejía observed some strange lines while hiking through the hills. After announcing his discovery, a curiosity for the lines emerged.

At first, it was believed that the lines were made for irrigation. In 1939, Dr. Paul Kosok, an American historian versed in the field, arrived in Nazca to investigate. Searching for an assistant, Kosok finally selected a young German emigre. This introverted girl had moved to Peru in 1932, and had been working as a teacher in Cuzco.

Her name was Maria Reiche.

Lady of the Pampa

Maria Reiche
After a long investigation, Kosok concluded that the lines had not been made for irrigation. They were probably used to predict astronomical events. Some Nazca lines converged with the solstice, an event in which the sun reaches its highest point in the sky. Solstices occur twice a year, in summer and the winter. The lines, pointing at the setting sun during the solstice, were used as a calendar. The Nazca timed their seasons and prepared for them beforehand.

As his tenure ended, Kosok assigned Maria Reiche to continue the research. Maria was submerged in her work with intense passion. Back then, everyone thought that the desert just had a few lines and one bird figure. Maria was the first explorer who, after prolonged hours of work, discovered innumerable animal figures: monkeys, birds, lizards, spiders, parrots, whales, and jaguars. Centuries ago, extreme winds had buried the figures with dust. But Maria, with great persistence and discipline, cleaned them and made them visible. Covering a distance larger than fifty kilometers, Maria endured years of arduous work. As she moved forward, she was astonished to find more figures. Some lines had a depth of 30 cm and a length of 600 meters. Although Carbon-14 dating revealed that the lines were carved around 550 AD, Maria believed the lines were thousands of years old.

Maria alone discovered and unburied thousands of lines, «hundred of triangles and quadrangles», and dozens of gigantic figures.
In 1949, Maria wrote a book about the lines entitled «The Mystery on the Desert». Reiche expressed astonishment at how the Nazca could build such kilometric lines. The carvings revealed a complex knowledge of geometry and mathematics. She wrote that the lines’ perfection «may be explained by the extraordinary eyesight of ancient Peruvians. There are only two places in the world where we have this kind of telescopic eyesight, where people can see small things at immense distances, the one is in Mongolia in the Gobi Desert, and the other is here among Nazca people.» Reiche concluded that Nazca figures were used as an astronomical calendar, and to predict eclipses. Nazca Lords were the only ones entitled to understand the lines and forecast an eclipse. The Nazca people considered this knowledge divine, and they feared their Lords.

Reiche’s book had a mixed response, but it eventually made the lines internationally famous. Maria loved the lines and cared about them as no Peruvian ever did. She educated the people about the need to preserve the site since it represented our heritage.

‘Nobody is going to take me away from here. When I die, bury me in this desert’- María Reiche

Maria built herself a house next to the desert. She never married because she enjoyed her loneliness. As Maria began to age, her passion for the lines intensified. She said: «To make the lines more accessible for viewing I cleaned them with a broom, one broom after another throughout the years. I went through so many brooms rumors circulated that I might be a witch!..people didn’t understand me…The children were very scared of me. Parents used to tell their children, «if you misbehave, I’m going to give you away to the witch».

Reiche later found out she had been nicknamed «the crazy old lady of the desert» and «The Witch of Nazca desert».
Maria Reiche-Sumaq Magazine
By the end of her life, Reiche knew she was destined to study the lines. She wrote: «Everything had prepared me for this life. The isolation in which I found myself, my parents putting me aside after my brother was born, my shortsightedness not being detected, all made me an introvert.» As she grew older and weaker, Nazca residents didn’t understand why she did not retire. Why did she still visit the lines even when she was in a wheelchair? Maria Reiche often retorted: «Nobody is going to take me away from here. When I die, bury me in this desert.»

The Peruvian government awarded her with the Prestigious «Order of the Sun» in 1993. Nazca officials also endowed her with the title «Illustrious Daughter of Nazca».

In 1995, UNESCO declared the Nazca Lines a World Heritage Site. Three years later, Maria Reiche died in a hospital in Lima. She was 95 years old. Maria Reiche was buried in Nazca, just as she wished it. Nearly a hundred schools in Peru, and also the Nazca airport, are named after her.

Sometimes it takes a foreigner to recognize the gifts a nation has, and remind us of the blessings most take for granted. Throughout her life, Maria Reiche reminded us how extraordinary Peru is.

Now that she is dead, it is our duty to remember her.𝔖

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