NAZCA, Peru — Author Erich von Daniken did this impoverished town a needed favor when he wrote that "the Nazca lines," huge and mysterious markings that decorate the desert floor, are evidence of ancient contact with intelligent beings from outer space.
Von Daniken's far-fetched notions helped make the lines famous in the 1970s and brought a profitable stream of international tourism to southern Peru's remote hinterland.
Fortunately, a lanky German mathematician named Maria Reiche was already here. Almost single-handedly, she protected the Nazca lines from being trampled and damaged in the growing rush of visitors.
But now, what some residents call the "golden years" of Reiche and the Nazca lines are fading into the past. Tourism has dwindled to a trickle. Reiche, "the lady of the lines," has been blinded and disabled by illness and age.
To make matters worse for Nazca, the desert area's agriculture is suffering a severe shortage of irrigation water, further depressing the local economy. Increasing numbers of people have taken to looting ancient ceremonial and burial sites, illegally selling the artifacts they find.
The looting not only steals away beautiful examples of bronze work, pottery and weaving, it also destroys evidence that might have helped archeologists better understand the civilization that drew the amazing Nazca lines.
A flat desert named the Pampa de San Jose stretches north and west from Nazca, running into low, scattered mountains that look like lost children of the mighty Andes. Over a period of several hundred years, probably between 300 BC and AD 800, the people of the region marked the \o7 pampa \f7 with a maze of straight lines, triangles, trapezoids and other figures, including many representing birds, animals, people and plants.
As a whole, the Nazca lines are perhaps the biggest work of art on Earth. Some of the ruler-straight lines extend more than five miles. Individual, neatly drawn figures cover up to six acres--a Gargantuan spider, a humongous hummingbird, a mega-monkey with a spiraled tail.
The planning and measuring of the markings may have been complex, but scholars agree that the physical work of making them was not complicated. A layer of small rocks that are dark with oxidized minerals covers the \o7 pampa's \f7 surface. Under the rocks lies a subsurface of light-colored sand. The ancient Nazca people simply brushed away the dark rocks to expose the contrasting sand along the lines and designs they planned.
The mystery of Nazca is not so much how they did it, but why. According to Von Daniken and others who have favored spaceman theories, the Nazca civilization remembered extraterrestrial visitors who came and went in spaceships. The lines, which can be seen well only from the sky, were an attempt at communication with extraterrestrials, those theories contend.
Reiche, who spent more than four decades measuring and mapping the lines, never bought the extraterrestrial idea, but her own theory was also controversial. She said the markings probably were used to chart the stars and make astronomical observations.
Studies completed since the mid-1980s generally disagree with her. They say the artwork was the expression of a religious cult that worshiped mountain gods of weather, water and fertility.
While scientists admit that the meaning of the lines will never be completely clear, they do draw general conclusions. Long lines across the \o7 pampa \f7 appear to be sacred paths that were used for ritual walking or pilgrimages. One study showed that alignments of triangles and trapezoids were related to the flow of water. The animals depicted on the \o7 pampa \f7 were known symbols of fertility in other Andean religions.
Some scientific studies of the lines have been suspended because foreign researchers fear terrorist attacks by Peru's Sendero Luminoso guerrillas. The rebels assaulted two towns near Nazca in 1989 and 1990, and an Italian archeological team received a threatening letter from them in July.
In addition to terrorism, an epidemic of cholera that started in early 1991 has kept many foreign tourists away from Peru. And for the past two years, dollar exchange rates have made Peru a relatively expensive destination.
Josue Lancho, the principal of a Nazca school who supplements his income by working as a guide, said the number of tourists coming to see the lines has dropped from around 20,000 a year in the mid-1980s to about 2,000 in the first 11 months of 1992.
Pilots take small planeloads of tourists up for panoramic views of the hundreds of straight lines and geometric designs and then circle lower over the whale, the monkey and other figures.
The lines are not the only attraction in Nazca. Tourist guide Lancho takes visitors out in his old Volkswagen to see underground aqueducts that the ancient people built to bring water to the surface from subterranean streams.