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Tourists Ruin Peru’s Nazca Lines

August 6, 1998

NAZCA, Peru (AP) _ The American tourists drove their van across this bleak desert plain in southern Peru, their tire tracks scarring the fragile, ancient designs etched into the moonlike landscape. Their marks will remain for centuries.

Careless tourists are not the only threat to the Nazca Lines. Trucks rumble across them. At night, looters dig in search of Indian graves, miners look for gold and city trucks dump garbage on the desert.

With the recent death of the woman who defended the Nazca Lines for 50 years, archaeologists warn the huge desert etchings are in danger of disappearing in coming decades.

The site is made up of thousands of lines, some stretching for miles and climbing distant hills. Dozens of figures are etched among them: a hummingbird, monkey, whale, spider and flower. The figures, some up to 900 feet long, are recognizable only from the air.

Called everything from an ancient calendar to an alien landing strip, the lines are etched into one of the world’s driest deserts, 280 miles southeast of Lima.

Nights are bitterly cold and days scorchingly hot on the eerily lifeless plains of Nazca in southern Peru.

Italian archaeologist Giuseppe Orefici, who has worked in Nazca for 17 years, calls the desert etchings the world’s largest hieroglyphics, created 1,000 to 2,000 years ago when the Nazca and Paracas cultures cleared the stony surface and exposed the whitish soil underneath.

They are a book written in a strange language that has been preserved by the extreme desert conditions, he said.

It is Peru’s great novel, written in disappearing ink.

The tourists from California who crisscrossed their van across the Nazca Lines left July 23 after dumping fruit peel and eggs shells.

What they did ``was a minor sacrilege of one of the world’s archaeological treasures,″ Orefici said. ``But it was one of many sacrileges. The Nazca Lines are suffering an absurd neglect.″

The government has budgeted $10,000 to protect the site for the rest of the year. It receives no other funding.

The money pays for two guards on motorcycles to patrol the 200 square miles of desert where the lines are etched. At night, the guards go home, leaving them unprotected.

Centuries of neglect have destroyed about a fifth of the original etchings, Nazca historian Andres Lancho said.

Many of the figures are already crisscrossed by tire tracks. The busy Pan American Highway, built in the early 1940s, slices hundreds of lines and cuts a drawing of a giant lizard in two.

In May, their protector, German mathematician Maria Reiche, died of cancer at the age of 95. Before her death, Reiche paid for the guards herself.

For 50 years she fought off threats to the lines, including plans to hold a motorcycle race and to irrigate the desert for farming.

``Her death has put a big question mark beside the future of the Nazca Lines because who will fight for them like she did?″ Lancho said.

The site has baffled archaeologists, who wonder how ancient cultures constructed such straight lines and precise figures visible only from the air without modern tools or airplanes.

Reiche believed the designs represented a giant calendar based on the movements of constellations. She theorized they told ancient desert dwellers when to plant and irrigate their crops and were made using ropes, stakes and mathematics.

A more controversial theory was put forward in the 1970s, when a best-selling book suggested they were an alien landing strip.

Nazca became an attraction for mystics who believe it holds special magnetic powers. Others came to wait for space ships to return to earth.

To this day, tourists try to camp on the lines to absorb their reputed energy, Garcia says.

Before her death, Reiche called for better protection for the lines. ``This precious thing should be treated like a very fragile manuscript that is guarded in a special room in a library,″ she said.

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