- LAST REVIEWED: 15 January 2020
- LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2017
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0069
- LAST REVIEWED: 15 January 2020
- LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2017
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0069
The Nasca culture emerged on the south coast of Peru during the Early Intermediate period, dating from about 100 BCE to 650 CE. Its heartland was in the Nazca Valley and the various tributaries comprising this drainage and in the Ica Valley to the north. Although the Nasca are best known for their colorful painted and modeled pottery and fine textiles, their artistic talents were also expressed on a wide variety of other media. Unlike the contemporary Moche on the north coast, the Nasca had a minimal knowledge of metallurgy. The only metal they worked was gold, which they fashioned into ornaments for use in sacred rituals. Other objects were made of shell, particularly of the genus Spondylus, or thorny oyster, that was imported from the warmer waters of coastal Ecuador. Gourds were used as containers and often were pyro-engraved with elaborate designs. The Nasca also had wooden artifacts, mostly utilitarian, but some of which were carved or decorated with various motifs. To complete the list of portable art, some artifacts of stone, bone, and cane are known. Nasca feather work, while illustrated in some books, appears to date mostly to later cultures and must be viewed with caution. Art is also expressed in the so-called “Nasca Lines” or geoglyphs, where giant representations of birds, animals, and other creatures were etched onto the floor of the desert, often covering several acres. More recently, Nasca petroglyphs, or rock art, have been recorded displaying the same motifs found on the pottery and geoglyphs. Each of these art forms is discussed separately. The motifs portrayed in Nasca art fall into two basic categories: sacred and profane, or, in other words, religious and naturalistic. Many Nasca ceramics and textiles, for example, are replete with images of supernatural creatures, often combinations of human (anthropomorphic) and animal/bird/fish forms representing the powerful spirits or forces of the sky, earth, and sea. Research has shown that Nasca shamans used hallucinogenic drugs in religious rituals to intercede with or transform into these nature spirits. Some of the figures in the art may represent these shamans in the process of transformation; others may simply represent the nature spirits themselves. Other motifs include naturalistic representations of the world in which they lived. Birds of many species, plants, animals, reptiles, and fish, as well as objects (e.g., weapons, nets, clothing, jewelry), are common representations. Geometric designs are found on many media, such as ceramics, textiles, and feather work. (Note: Modern scholars prefer to use the spelling “Nasca” for the culture and “Nazca” for geographic references such as the Nazca Valley. However, the two spellings are interchangeable depending on the author or the age of the reference.)
There are many books and articles on varying aspects of Nasca society and its accomplishments. Although some of these do not deal directly with Nasca art, they are included to provide a broader context for the study of Nasca art by presenting information on the sociopolitical organization, architecture, and lifestyle of this early civilization. Nasca was a stratified complex society that never reached the level of a preindustrial state. That is, politically it comprised regional chiefdoms, each with local leaders rather than a central government with a capital city and a single leader. However, the Nasca people shared a common culture centered on a religious cult that included a number of nature spirits, pilgrimages to religious centers, the use of hallucinogenic drugs by shamans to interact with the spirit world, and the taking and ritual burial of human trophy heads to ensure agricultural fertility. They also shared a common art style that, despite minor regional differences, was remarkably homogenous. The only comprehensive overview of the Nasca culture, covering all aspects of their society, is Silverman and Proulx 2002, but other sources, especially Schreiber and Lancho Rojas 2003, provide good summaries of their unique irrigation system or puquios, their settlement patterns (Silverman 2002), and the famous “Nasca Lines” or geoglyphs (Aveni 2000). The Nasca culture developed directly out of the Paracas culture of the Early Horizon (ca. 800–100 BCE), distinguished by only minor changes in the manner in which the pottery was decorated. In all other respects, Nasca culture was simply a continuation of Paracas. Many of the motifs on Nasca pottery, textiles, and other artifacts had their origins in the Paracas culture. The relationship between Paracas and Nasca is best described in Proulx 2008. The largest and best-studied Nasca site is Cahuachi; Silverman 1993 provides the best description in English, arguing that the site was an empty ceremonial center. Orefici 2012, written by the archaeologist who has worked continually at the site since the early 1980s, is also an excellent source and is more up to date and comprehensive than Helaine Silverman’s works, but the text is in Spanish and is more difficult to access. Like Silverman, Orefici has found no evidence of permanent habitation at Cahuachi except for religious leaders who used the site for ceremonies and ritual activities. A new volume (Lasaponara, et al. 2016) containing twenty-six chapters on various aspects of the Nasca culture has recently been published, providing new insights and technical information not found in other sources. This article will attempt to provide the reader with an up-to-date selection of sources covering all aspects of ancient Nasca art. Silverman 1996 is a very useful reference that covers the art of all the ancient cultures of Peru. However, given that it was published in the mid-1990s, it does not include important more-recent research.
Aveni, Anthony F. Between the Lines: The Mystery of the Giant Ground Drawings of Ancient Nasca, Peru. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000.
An overview of the Nasca Lines (geoglyphs), by one of the pioneers of archaeoastronomy. Includes descriptions of the variety of geoglyphs and how they were constructed, and a critical analysis of the theories of their function.
Lasaponara, Rosa, Nicola Masini, and Guiseppe Orefici, eds. The Ancient Nasca World: New Insights from Science and Archaeology. Berlin: Springer International, 2016.
An up-to-date compendium of the work accomplished by the Italian excavation team at the ceremonial site of Cahuachi headed by Guiseppe Orefic, and by a remote sensing team headed by Nicola Masini and Rosa Lasaponara providing new data on many aspects of the Nasca culture.
Orefici, Giuseppe. Cahuachi: Capital teocrática Nasca. 2 vols. Lima, Peru: Universidad de San Martín de Porres, Fondo Editorial, 2012.
Major site report by the archaeologist who has been excavating at Cahuachi since the early 1980s. Excellent, up-to-date illustrations, maps, and plans of the site and artifacts. Argues that Cahuachi was the religious capital of a theocratic society.
Proulx, Donald A. “Paracas and Nasca: Regional Cultures on the South Coast of Peru.” In Handbook of South American Archaeology. Edited by Helaine Silverman and William H. Isbell, 563–585. New York: Springer, 2008.
A comparison of the Paracas and Nasca cultures, including when and how Nasca evolved out of Paracas.
Schreiber, Katharina, and Josue Lancho Rojas. Irrigation and Society in the Peruvian Desert: The Puquios of Nasca. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2003.
Description and analysis of the underground aqueduct system (puquios) built by the Nasca, which is still used today.
Silverman, Helaine. Cahuachi in the Ancient Nasca World. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1993.
The first major description of the large Nasca site of Cahuachi, on the basis of Silverman’s excavations in the mid-1980s. She attempts to prove that Cahuachi was primarily a vacant ceremonial center occupied by a small permanent group of religious leaders but visited periodically by worshipers from the surrounding area, who made pilgrimages to the site for rituals.
Silverman, Helaine. Ancient Peruvian Art: An Annotated Bibliography. Reference Publication in Art History. New York: G. K. Hall, 1996.
A comprehensive annotated bibliography of ancient Peruvian art sources, covering all cultures. Published in 1996, its coverage ends with that date, but it remains the best source on the topic.
Silverman, Helaine. Ancient Nasca Settlement and Society. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2002.
A regional analysis of Nasca settlement patterns over time, on the basis of the author’s fieldwork along the Ingenio and Río Grande Rivers.
Silverman, Helaine, and Donald A. Proulx. The Nasca. Peoples of America. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002.
Provides the most comprehensive description of ancient Nasca society, including sociopolitical organization, religion, architecture, settlement patterns, art (especially ceramics and iconography), headhunting and warfare, and the famous geoglyphs.
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