Maria Reiche, the 'guardian' of the Mysteries of Nazca
German mathematician devoted her entire life to measuring and studying the geometric patterns of these strange Peruvian petroglyphs. Was she able to unlock their secret?
Armed with a compass, a ladder-like a watchtower, and a broom, Maria Reiche was known throughout the Nazca Valley as "the woman who sweeps the desert". She was also known as "the witch" because nobody understood what that blonde foreigner was doing, measuring inch by inch the ancient lines carved in the earth, whose mystery remains unsolved to this day.
But at least she tried, all her life, dedicating years to outline theories on the relation of these figures with the solstices and the constellations. Looking for a scientific meaning to a prodigy that, for archaeologists today, has more to do with religious cults and ceremonies than with some type of old science.
Her arrival at these valleys in the heart of Peru was a crush on mystery.
She had studied mathematics, physics, and geography at the universities of Dresden and Hamburg, and the young German wanted to see the world. She got a position as tutor to the German consul's children in Cuzco; from there she traveled to Lima and worked as a German and English teacher and as a translator, before getting a job restoring pre-Columbian textiles in the National Museum of Peru.
However, life sometimes takes strange twists and turns, sometimes with no turning back. When in 1941, ten years after she settled in the country, the American archaeologist Paul Kosok invited her to visit Nazca and become his assistant, those mysterious figures were etched into her retina. She left for Germany shortly after because of the war, but in 1945 and as if invoked by the secret of the lines, she returned to Peru and never left.
Reiche became the guardian of Nazca, fighting to protect the place from the thousands of curious people and tourists called like flies by the honey of the mystery.
Of the seventy geoglyphs and the more than 10,000 lines found on the Jumana and San Jose plains, Maria Reiche came to investigate some fifty.
Her scientific methods in this arid and difficult desert were so rustic and strange to the inhabitants of Nazca and Palpa that they could not imagine what that woman was doing with a broom in her hand, walking alone in the sand and cleaning some stretches, more than witchcraft.
She also theorized that the agricultural societies of the Nazca civilization used the drawings to fix the cycles of the crops and the climate, and found out that they represented up to 18 types of animals and birds, in addition to the geometric glyphs.
In 1974, with the help of the Peruvian Air Force, María was commissioned to map the area, covering the 450 square kilometers of desert.
While other researchers and onlookers were attracted by the mysteries of Nazca and the place became a tourist attraction, Maria Reiche became its guardian, fighting to have them build lookouts and a small airport to keep the lines apart and safe from visitors.
In spite of her articles and a life dedicated to research, she was never able to clear up the enigma of these one-line drawings that are located in the plains since 200 B.C. It remains, in fact, a mystery how the Nazca civilization was able to build those hummingbirds, monkeys, spiders, and spirals that can only be seen from the air and by plane.