More than 5,000 geoglyphs—prehistoric works of art placed on or worked into the landscape—have been recorded in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile over the past thirty years. A summary of these investigations appears in a paper by Luis Briones entitled “The geoglyphs of the north Chilean desert: an archaeological and artistic perspective”, published in the March 2006 issue of the journal Antiquity.
The Geoglyphs of Chile
The best known geoglyphs in the world are the Nazca lines, built between 200 BC and 800 AD, and located approximately 800 kilometers away in coastal Peru. The Chilean glyphs in the Atacama Desert are far more numerous and varied in style, cover a much larger region (150,000 km2 versus the 250 km2 of the Nazca lines), and were built between 600 and 1500 AD. Both the Nazca lines and the Atacama glyphs had multiple symbolic or ritual purposes; while scholars believe the Atacama glyphs additionally had a vital role in the transportation network connecting the great South American civilizations.
Built and refined by several South American cultures—likely including Tiwanaku and Inca, as well as less-advanced groups—the widely varied geoglyphs are in geometric, animal and human forms, and in about fifty different types. Using artifacts and stylistic characteristics, archaeologists believe the earliest were first constructed during the Middle Period, beginning around 800 AD. The most recent may be associated with early Christian rites in the 16th century. Some geoglyphs are found in isolation, some are in panels of up to 50 figures. They are found on hillsides, pampas, and valley floors throughout the Atacama Desert; but they are always found near ancient pre-Hispanic trackways marking llama caravan routes through the difficult regions of the desert connecting the ancient people of South America.
Types and Forms of Geoglyphs
The geoglyphs of the Atacama Desert were built using three essential methods, ‘extractive’, ‘additive’ and ‘mixed’. Some, like the famous geoglyphs of Nazca, were extracted from the environment, by scraping the dark desert varnish away exposing the lighter subsoil. Additive geoglyphs were built of stones and other natural materials, sorted and carefully placed. Mixed geoglyphs were completed using both techniques, and occasionally painted as well.
The most frequent type of geoglyph in the Atacama are geometric forms: circles, concentric circles, circles with dots, rectangles, crosses, arrows, parallel lines, rhomboids; all symbols found in pre-Hispanic ceramics and textiles. One important image is the stepped rhombus, essentially a staircase shape of stacked rhomboids or diamond shapes (such as in the figure).
Zoomorphic figures include camelids (llamas or alpacas), foxes, lizards, flamingos, eagles, seagulls, rheas, monkeys, and fishes including dolphins or sharks. One frequently occurring image is a caravan of llamas, one or more lines of between three and 80 animals in a row. Another frequent image is that of an amphibian, such as a lizard, toad or serpent; all of these are divinities in the Andean world connected to water rituals.
Human figures occur in the geoglyphs and are generally naturalistic in form; some of these are engaged in activities ranging from hunting and fishing to sex and religious ceremonies. On the Arica coastal plains can be found the Lluta style of human representation, a body form with a highly stylized pair of long legs and a square head. This type of glyph is thought to date to AD 1000-1400. Other stylized human figures have a forked crest and a body with concave sides, in the Tarapaca region, dated to AD 800-1400.
Why Were the Geoglyphs Built?
The complete purpose of the geoglyphs is likely to remain unknown to us today. Possible functions include a cultic worship of mountains, or expressions of devotion to Andean deities; but Briones believes that one vital function of the geoglyphs was to store knowledge of safe pathways for llama caravans through the desert, including the knowledge of where salt flats, water sources, and animal fodder could be found.
Briones terms these “messages, memories and rites” associated with the pathways, part sign post and part story-telling along a transportation network in an ancient form of combined religious and commercial travel, not unlike the rite known from many many cultures on the planet as pilgrimage. Large llama caravans were reported by Spanish chroniclers, and many of the representational glyphs are of caravans. However, no caravan equipment has been found in the desert to date (see Pomeroy 2013). Other potential interpretations include solar alignments.
Briones-M L. 2006. The geoglyphs of the north Chilean desert: an archaeological and artistic perspective. Antiquity 80:9-24.
Chepstow-Lusty AJ. 2011. Agro-pastoralism and social change in the Cuzco heartland of Peru: a brief history using environmental proxies. Antiquity 85(328):570-582.
Clarkson PB. Atacama Geoglyphs: Huge Images Created Across the Rocky Landscape of Chile. Online manuscript.
Labash M. 2012. The Geoglyphs of the Atacama Desert: A bond of landscape and mobility. Spectrum 2:28-37.
Pomeroy E. 2013. Biomechanical insights into activity and long distance trade in the south-central Andes (AD 500–1450). Journal of Archaeological Science 40(8):3129-3140.Thanks to Persis Clarkson for her assistance with this article, and to Louis Briones for the photography.