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How a German Mathematician Took Responsibility for an Ancient Peruvian Artifact

Maria Reiche lived in a shack in the desert with the Nazca Lines for 40 years

There is no one final theory about the original purpose of the Nazca Lines. (Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

They called her the Lady of the Lines.

Maria Reiche, born on this day in 1903, was a German adventurer whose life took a totally impossible-to-predict turn. A mathematician who moved to Peru to work as a governess, Reiche found her calling through a chance meeting with a mathematician who had photographed the Nazca Lines from an airplane.

For the next 60 years, writes The Independent, Reiche documented and protected the Nazca Lines during a period of development in Peru, in an action almost as mysterious as the Lines themselves.

The Lines, today a World Heritage Site, are “among archaeology’s greatest enigmas,” in the words of UNESCO, which granted them that status in 1995. The huge field of geoglyphs shows living creatures, plants, fantastic beings and geometric drawings, all kilometers long. Reiche herself described the plain where the lines are as "a huge blackboard where giant hands have drawn clear and precise geometric designs.”

This blackboard is only fully readable from the sky, which over the years has led to a number of outlandish theories about the lines’ origin and purpose—including the often-repeated idea that they were built to be viewed by extraterrestrial life. The Lines were first systematically studied in the ‘20s by a Peruvian archaeologist named Toribio Maj'ia Xesspe, according to Jason Golomb for National Geographic, but it wasn’t until the advent of commercial flight in the 1930s that the Lines became popularly known by tourists and other air travellers.

They caught the eye of an American professor named Paul Kosok, who in 1941 hypothesized that the lines were “the largest astronomy book in the world,” according to Golomb. Kosok and Reiche met at a coffee shop owned by one of her German students, and he told her about the Lines.

She was hooked. It seems far-fetched that a foreign national would be inclined to devote the rest of her life to protecting and studying a then-little known archaeological site. But that’s exactly what she did.

“Whatever possessed her to make them her life's work, almost from the time she first saw them in 1941, Ms. Reiche... was the acknowledged and acclaimed curator of the Nazca lines,” writes Robert Thomas Jr. for The New York Times. Using her knowledge of mathematics, she took over Kosok’s work when he left Peru in 1948, ascribing to and adding to his theory that the lines had something to do with astronomy and keeping track of the year. This was only the first of many theories about the lines’ significance, none of which can be established for sure as the truth.

Reiche’s biggest contribution was putting the lines on the map, both literally and figuratively. She moved to the desert where the lines were and started finding, measuring and cleaning them, writes The Independent. This activity gained her the reputation as being “almost as strange as the lines themselves,” the newspaper writes:

"I used to live on a flat roof or sleep out in a tent in the desert," she recalled in later life. "The locals either thought I was a spy or completely mad. Once a drunk threatened me with a stone, so I took out my sextant and pointed it at him. He ran off screaming, and the next day the local papers ran the story of a mad and armed German spy in their midst."

Over the next 40 years, she became known for chasing tourists and vehicles off the Lines. She also lectured and helped explain the Lines to outsiders. She helped the Peruvian government map the Lines in the 1950s, according to Hilary MacGregor for The Los Angeles Times, but she also fought the government when it wanted to dig irrigation canals that crossed the Lines.  

By the 1970s, writes The Independent, the Nazca Lines—aided by Reiche’s tireless study and advocacy—"had become the second most important tourist destination in Peru,” with its own hotel. Reiche, then 70, took up permanent residence in room 130 of the hotel, where she continued to lecture on the lines until her death in 1998.

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