I’m not entirely sure how the Nazca lines ended up becoming synonymous with ancient astronauts. It’s not as though they are a particularly natural fit. Sure, the large animal figures and long geometric shapes are strange, but they don’t really scream alien. Erich von Däniken started the theme in Chariots of the Gods (1968) when he wrote the following lines: “Seen from the air, the clear-cut impression that the 37-mile-long plain of Nazca made on me was that of an airfield! What is so far-fetched about the idea?”
Even other alternative authors understood that there were problems with this idea. First, since when did flying saucers require landing strips? Second, even the drug-using neo-hippie Graham Hancock recognized in Fingerprints of the Gods (1995) that the soft rock of the Nazca plateau was a terrible choice to land a craft of any weight. As he said, “all are much too soft to have permitted the landing of wheeled flying vehicles.” Maria Reiche, the longtime promoter of the lines, agreed, saying that the UFOs would have “gotten stuck.”
Von Däniken didn’t try to explain or defend his idea, or provide even a scintilla of proof. Nevertheless, Twilight Zone and Night Gallery writer and host Rod Serling was particularly taken by the idea, being an aficionado of airplanes, and a photo of the Nazca lines convinced him the ancient astronaut idea had merit, leading to his participation in the film version of Chariots, called In Search of Ancient Astronauts, an NBC-TV special watched by around a third of all Americans, which in turn sparked the 1970s ancient astronaut craze and, in the process, made Erich von Däniken a millionaire several times over.
Calling the Nazca lines “runways” was, by sheer chance, von Däniken’s most fateful stab in the dark.
So, here we are forty-five years later watching Ancient Aliens S05E08 “Beyond Nazca,” where the successors to von Däniken are still promoting the Nazca lines, though with less grounded claims about what the aliens were doing with the plateau’s various zoomorphic and geometric shapes. I’m not really sure what to say about this episode since everything in it was covered in previous episodes, stretching back to the pilot in 2009. I can say this: For those keeping track of such things, tonight we have a new title card again, featuring the Aztec calendar! (The real calendar stone depicted on the card doesn’t rotate with interlocking rings; it’s one giant slab.)
The show starts with a potted history of the Nazca lines, including their recognition in early aerial flyovers. It’s probably worth noting that the lines are not “carved” into the desert so much as they are swept into them. The dark iron-oxide rocks scattered on the desert floor were pushed aside, exposing the brighter yellow clay ground beneath. It is a massive undertaking in terms of volume, but the actual construction of a single figure was not particularly arduous. The narrator eventually reveals this, but only after several pundits try to tell us how massive and complex and difficult the lines are.
So, since the construction of the lines doesn’t seem to be in question (at least not at first), the only question to debate is the reason for the lines’ existence. Giorgio Tsoukalos, surprisingly, shoots down the theory that the Nazca had hot air balloons, a popular claim but one without supporting evidence, arguing that the Spanish chroniclers would have written down such things. Since they did not, without any written record, “therefore, it didn’t exist.” He is unaware of the irony that the Spanish recorded no aliens either, and by his logic they therefore don’t exist, QED!
The show’s pundits want us to believe that the lines were meant to be seen from above, and some idiot (Linda Moutlon Howe) actually tries to resurrect the runway hypothesis, suggesting—despite the narrator’s own earlier statements—that the Great Triangle geoglyph appeared “pushed down” rather than cleared off, to a depth of (I believe she said) 24 inches, which is untrue since the lines are at best 1-2 inches deep. Giorgio Tsoukalos tones it down a bit, arguing that an alien rover or probe was scratching its way across the plateau on a research mission, but the narrator had already dismissed these possibilities, so why engage them now?
Next up: The frequent Ancient Aliens claim that anything they don’t understand was a “navigational” marker for lost UFOs. I still don’t understand why aliens seem to need “navigational markers” for traveling around the world. Surely they have better technology that scratches on the ground at Nazca to tell directions, like, say a compass?
This discussion made me wonder: How can we tell the difference between a line carved because the natives thought there were beings that lived in the sky (gods) or because the natives really met a being that lived in the sky? On the ground, the results would be the same: in both cases, you’d have drawings focused on “above.” Additionally, we might just as well claim that most Christian churches are signs to the aliens since they are cruciform, but that cross shape can only be viewed “from above.” Sometimes, the purpose of a geoglyph is in its construction, not in whether anyone can literally see it from above.
A “paranormal researcher” next claims that the Nazca lines can be seen from space, but that’s not true. No human-made object can be seen from outer space (outside earth’s atmosphere, as it is conventionally defined), not even the Great Wall of China.
Mike Bara suggests that the Nazca Spider is meant to be Orion and Sirius, which is a reasonable hypothesis, suggested by the aforementioned Maria Reiche, though not one that has been conclusively demonstrated. I don’t particularly buy into it, since the only evidence in its favor is that the spider has a narrow waist, which Reiche linked to Orion’s belt, narrower than the shoulder and leg widths formed by the stars above and below. For the correlation to work, the Nazca would have had to recognize Orion in the shape the Greeks did, including the shoulders and legs, and there is no evidence of that in the Americas. More obviously, it depicts an actual spider, which has a narrow “waist” separating thorax and abdomen.
Next up, we review the Nazca astronaut, supposedly (according to Childress) either an astronaut or a Nazca waving to them. I can’t possibly dignify this since both Frank Johnson and I have previously explained how this figure is in fact a fisherman (as you can tell by the fish he holds), meant to signal coastal people that the highland Nazca were willing to trade fish. Ancient astronaut writers care nothing for the peoples who actually used such carvings, of course, because that requires acknowledging human action.
I have no idea what von Däniken is talking about when he says that the magnetic field beneath each line is anomalous and that the conductivity of the ground under each line is 8,000 times stronger than anywhere else at Nazca. Is he perhaps referring to the well-known magnetic anomaly in the Nazca plate (in the ocean, not on the plateau, though they share a name) caused by magnetized basalt? The only references I can find to magnetic fields at the plateau itself involve dowsing for ley lines, which is not really going to give you a measurement (or facts, but whatever).
Jason Martell tells us that Nazca must have been a mining outpost for nitrates, but no one on the show can quite explain why aliens would want nitrates, though Philip Coppens suggests it was for space travel, illustrated with computer-generated spaceships. Perhaps they enjoyed hot dogs? Oddly, no one thinks to look for the alleged mines the aliens would have used. Surely, if aliens had engaged in industrial levels of mining, there should have been some evidence that vast quantities of minerals had been removed from Nazca.
So, after the second commercial, at the halfway point, we go back to Tiwanaku to restate material from last season’s S04E06 “Mysteries of Puma Punku.” (Puma Punku and Tiwanaku were part of the same larger complex.) This time, because Tiwanaku is east of Nazca, we hear that the Nazca lines “point” to Tiwanaku, which is silly since the lines are all over the plateau, so different lines (and there are 800 of them) point to different places.
Based on this Childress tells us that Nazca is a way-station on the way to Tiwanaku, via airship. An imaginary airship, mind you, since that hasn’t been established as being true. Another connection is the ritual elongation of skulls across the Andes, which Howe denies is the result of head-binding (she thinks it’s genetic engineering), but von Däniken agrees is the result of head-binding, in imitation of the aliens, who are apparently Coneheads from Saturday Night Live. (Earlier episodes insisted the aliens were the “Greys” who do not have elongated skulls.) The narrator suggests that the elongated skulls are alien-human hybrids connected to Akhenaton in Egypt, illustrated with a picture of a cylindrical Egyptian crown, not an elongated head. But elongated skulls are well-known anthropologically, and head-binding to produce such skulls (typically as a sign of social stratification) has been observed down to the present.
The show suggests that the fall of the Middle Horizon civilizations (Nazca, Tiwanaku, and the unnamed Wari) was the result of alien intervention and catastrophic earthquakes. They make no effort to understand that South America was full of interconnected peoples and vast trade networks that experienced widespread disruption and collapse as a result of cultural forces and environmental factors. As a point of fact, though, the Nazca are actually an Early Intermediate culture, flourishing about 200 years before the Tiwanaku. Late Nazca ends by 800 CE, while Tiwanaku flourished for another two centuries before its collapse. It wasn’t simultaneous, unless you also think Napoleon and Giorgio Tsoukalos are roughly contemporaries.
Sadly, after the next commercial we move to North America to revive the old mound builder myth. We look at the Fort Ancient culture’s Serpent Mound of Ohio, a very famous earthwork. We hear from a Zuni elder who is also a believer in ancient astronauts, but he’s talking about his southwestern mythology and erroneously claiming it is identical to the (lost) mythology of the Fort Ancient a thousand years earlier and a thousand miles away. So, the serpent can’t be proved to be Quetzalcoatl. We also get the ethnocentric master-adjective—“primitive”—to describe the Fort Ancient, discounting their ability to use baskets to pile dirt in big heaps. This, of course, required outside intervention for the poor, benighted Native people. On the plus side, Ancient Aliens has spoken to more Native Americans than America Unearthed.
Some silly animation suggests that iridium at the site proves that the mound was a memorial to the aliens’ mining operation since the iridium was used to power their spaceships! Then why did they leave so much behind?
The mounds are then connected to crop circles, which have long been acknowledged as hoaxes by the men who created them, even though ancient alien pundits refuse to believe this. The show tries to retain the mystery by acknowledging that some circles are hoaxes but others are simply too complex to be made by humans. Many successful attempts to replicate such circles have proven this to be an unsustainable hypothesis. Even Erich von Däniken agrees the crop circles are alien, and he tells us that we are “too stupid” and “too arrogant” to understand them at a deep level. I will agree that he believes he is too stupid to understand what a crop circle really is.
As we pull in for a landing, we discuss “new” discoveries (which they later admit were found first in 1927) of stone circles in the Middle East. These are relatively crude circles with spokes. They are often associated with burials and have solar alignments. None has yet been excavated, and archaeologists aren’t sure yet what they were used for, though the likely guess is burial markers or early worship sites. But Ancient Aliens doesn’t care about that because there are circles in three different continents! Surely the shape of the circle is so rare and complex that it must be a sign form the aliens about the universality of mathematics as a form of communication. No, seriously, that’s what the show’s pundits really said. Bonus fact: When the talking heads say that the circles have been compared to the Nazca lines, they are paraphrasing this recent article, which they all read and recited point-for-point, down to the Google Earth reference.
Sometimes a shape is just a shape.
And geometric shapes are the easiest of all.
If the aliens really wanted to make a statement, I’d like to see the same non-obvious shape repeated worldwide, something that declares point blank that there must be a connection.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
Enter your email below to subscribe to my newsletter, The Skeptical Xenoarchaeologist, for updates on my latest projects, blog posts, and activities, and subscribe to Culture & Curiosities, my Substack newsletter.
Terms & Conditions
Please read all applicable terms and conditions before posting a comment on this blog. Posting a comment constitutes your agreement to abide by the terms and conditions linked herein.