The Atacama Desert
The Atacama Desert (Desierto de Atacama) of Chile, South America, located between the Andes Mountains and the coastal Cordillera de la Costa mountain range is the oldest desert on the planet. However, with an average temperature of 18 C or 63 F it is not the hottest desert in the world but being sandwiched between two mountain ranges creates special atmospheric and weather conditions making it the driest non-polar desert in the world. The desert landscape is dry and arid with an otherworldly appearance and has been used for simulations of future expeditions to Mars. The driest part of the desert receives less that a millimeter of rain annually on average though rainstorms do occur on rare occasions which bring rapid but fleeting growths of wildflowers.
Although the Atacama is a desolate, inhospitable place today there is much evidence of ancient human presence. There are more that 5,000 prehistoric works of art known as geoglyths that have been situated on or created from the landscape. A geoglyph is a work of art or construction that is formed on the ground in parts of the landscape. They are usually 4 meters or more in length and constructed of durable materials found in the locality such as stone, rocks, gravel or earth. They are considered a type of ancient land art and in some cases rock art and are usually highly visible from a distance. In some cases such as some of the famous Nasca lines of Peru they appear to have been constructed to be viewed from above though it is not certain that was intended. The Nazca lines were built between 200-800 BC and about 800 kilometers distant. However, the Atacama glyphs are believed to have been built between 600 and 1500 AD and although not thought to be as old are more numerous and with varied styles covering a much larger region.
It is believed both sets of geoglyphs had multiple symbolic and ritual purposes and communicated certain information to people who understood their symbolism. The Atacama geoglyphs are thought to have played an important role in the transportation system and networks that connected the great civilizations of South America in pre-Hispanic times. They were believed to have been built and improved upon by more than one early South American culture including The Tiwanaku and Inca Empires as well as other groups. The geoglyphs are formed in many different shapes including human, animal and geometric in about fifty varying types. Some of these works were placed or created in isolated sites while others appear in panels of figures up to fifty in number. They are located throughout the Atacama Desert in valleys, or on pampas or hillsides and always close to pre-Hispanic paths or tracks which were the routes of the llama caravans through the arid and desolate landscape connecting the ancient people of the region.
Types and Forms of Geoglyphs
There were three methods that have been identified that were used to create the geoglyphs. One method was to scrape away the top layer of the landscape such as soil or sand revealing a contrasting color below. Another way was to use rocks and stone and other materials to form shapes on the landscape. They also used a combination of these two methods and sometimes paint to create other geoglyphs.
Geoglyphs in geometric shapes are the most numerous. There are many different types of these including rectangles, circles, concentric circles, arrows, crossed parallel lines, rhomboids and other shapes. There are also zoomorphic figures especially llamas and alpacas, but also animals such as fox and monkeys, birds such as eagles, flamingos, and seagulls and fishes such as dolphins or sharks. There are also depictions of amphibians such as lizards, snake and toads which were believed to represent ancient divinities associated with water. One of the most often repeated depictions are of caravans of llamas with 3 or more ranks of up to 80 animals in lines. Humans are also depicted engaged in activities such as fishing, hunting, religious ceremonies and sex.
Luis Briones in his paper, “The geoglyphs of the north Chilean desert: an archaeological and artistic perspective”, published in the March 2006 issue of the journal Antiquity discussed the geoglyphs and came up with some interesting ideas. The real function and purpose of the geoglyphs may never be known but Briones believes they may have served several functions. Their location along the trade routes through the Atacama seems to have been deliberate. It may be they acted as signposts providing the travelers, who would know their meaning, with certain types of invaluable and useful information.
They may have served as pointers or landmarks perhaps indicating where water or fodder for animals may be found, or warning of difficulties in the landscape and indicating safe paths. It may be that they are part of an early religion or cult which may have combined commercial traveling with religion. Following such a path may have been a rite or ritual or perhaps an initiation or pilgrimage. If they did contain information they may have been an early form of writing. However, to read their meaning you would have to know what the shapes and the way they were set meant along with how punctuation and syntax was used. Unfortunately, that knowledge is now lost, if it ever existed and we can only guess.
The trade routes would have been an important part of the economy for any civilization or culture. The moving or essential items such as corn, potatoes, fish and other food as well as commodities such as turquoise, copper and cotton to distant markets helps bind civilizations and empires together. Moreover, they transported news and perhaps orders or commands from the government centers.
The Atacama Giant
One of the most spectacular of these geoglyphs is known as the Atacama Giant, a large anthropomorphic figure set on the side of the hill of Cerro Unitas. It is the largest known prehistoric anthropomorphic figure in the world being 390 ft (119 m) long and believed to depict a deity of a local population from 1000 – 1400 AD. It was believed to be an early astronomical calendar that told those who knew how to read it important dates such as crop cycles and seasons in relation to how certain parts of it aligned with the moon. Anything that might help predict rain or weather would be very useful in the dry, barren regions of the Atacama Desert.
Hill figures are often thought to have been intended to view from some distance, suggesting the giant may have been strategically placed. The giant has a stylized unnatural appearance made up of squares, rectangles and parallel lines at varying angles to create a geometric representation of a massive anthropomorphic figure. It appears to be either wearing a headdress such as one made of feathers or had rays emanating with from its head or from behind it. How the moon or other astronomical objects related to these lines was believe to give the season and times of the year.
The Giant and the other geoglyphs provide evidence of the activities of humans in these inhospitable regions. There are many similar examples of such landscape art found all around the world including the Nasca lines, and the White Horse of Uffington and other English hill figures, the Blythe Intaglios of California USA and the Steppe Geoglyphs of Kazakhstan are but a few examples.
© 23/04.2021 zteve t evans
References, Attributions and Further Reading
Copyright April 4th, 2021 zteve t evans
- Hirst, K. Kris. “The Geoglyphic Art of Chile’s Atacama Desert.” ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, thoughtco.com/geoglyphic-art-of-chiles-atacama-desert-169877. The Geoglyphic Art of Chile’s Atacama Desert (thoughtco.com)
- Atacama Desert – Wikipedia
- The Giant of Atacama – Cerro Unitas, Atacama Desert, Chile
- Atacama Giant – Wikipedia
- Where to See Five of the Planet’s Most Mysterious Geoglyphs
- 10 Ancient Geoglyphs – HeritageDaily – Archaeology News
- Atacama Desert – Image by Julian Hacker from Pixabay
- File:Geoglifos de Pintados – gigante de atacama 2.jpg from Wikimedia Commons – el Gigante de Atacama by Sznegra – Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
- File:Atacama Giant 01.GIF – Varech, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons