Reading under the lines
I was there on a photo assignment in 1995 when I stumbled into all this, says DAVID JOHNSON, an adjunct professor of anthropology at UMass. All this is a new way of explaining the Nasca Lines of coastal Peru ancient geoglyphs in the form of animal figures and geometric shapes stretching for miles across one of the worlds driest deserts, a place that typically gets less than an inch of rain a year.
The lines have evoked explanations ranging from ritual pathways to a giant astronomical calendar, from roads to landing pads for extraterrestrial visitors. The explanation Johnson came up with, after several years of exploration, was that at least some of the lines charted the location of important underground sources of water.
Now retired from high school teaching in Poughkeepsie, New York, Johnson had been volunteering for international service organizations for 25 years when, in the course of helping local Peruvians find a new well, he began to devise the theory that the famous Nasca lines trapezoids, swirls and other shapes created nearly 2,000 years ago were clues to places where water was coming through underground seeps and faults. After all, what could have been more important to people dependent on irrigation for their survival?
Anthropologist DONALD PROULX and hydrogeologist STEPHEN MABEE 92G, both UMass faculty, joined Johnson and began a study of their own to see if there was any scientific basis in his theories. In a paper presented in Poland, last summer, the three articulated their findings. Indeed, they said, they found convincing evidence that many of the geometric Nasca Lines (geoglyphs) mark the sources and flow of subterranean aquifers which carry water diagonally across the tributaries of the Rio Grande drainage on the south coast of Peru.
These are not simple or uncontroversial findings. Other scientists have promoted a competing theory: that the lines mark the places where surface water enters the river valleys. But disagreements among scientists are not merely abstract intellectual matters. Gaining funding to do more research depends upon persuading foundations and government agencies that your work is sound.
We want to locate all the ancient sites, to correlate them with the water sources, says Proulx. Describing this as a two-year, $100,000 project, the researchers are now applying for funds to the hydrological science division of the National Science Foundation. We need to get back, says Proulx.