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Mysterious Rock Lines Marked Way to Ancient Peru Fairs

New rock lines discovered in Peru predate the famous Nazca Lines by centuries and likely once marked the site of ancient fairs, researchers say.

The lines were created by people of the Paracas, a civilization that arose around 800 B.C. in what is now Peru. The Paracas culture predated the Nazca culture, which came onto the scene around 100 B.C. The Nazca people are famous for their fantastic geoglyphs, or rock lines, built in the shapes of monkeys, birds and other animals.

A view of two rock lines that mark the June solstice with a person for scale. Charles Stanish

The new lines date to around 300 B.C., making them at least 300 years older than the oldest Nazca lines, said Charles Stanish, the director of the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at the University of California, Los Angeles, who reported the new find today (May 5) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"They used the lines in a different way than the Nazca," Stanish told Live Science. "They basically created these areas of highly ritualized processions and activities that were not settled permanently." [See Images of Ancient 'Nazca' Lines & Fair Site]

The closest European analog, Stanish said, would be the medieval fairs that brought visitors from far and wide.

Ancient fairs

Stanish and his team discovered the lines in the Chinca Valley, which is about 125 miles (200 kilometers) south of Lima, Peru. The area has a history of pre-European-contact settlements stretching from at least 800 B.C. to the 1500s A.D.

Image: Mono B on the day before solstice (June 20) in 2013. A marker points to the solstice sunset.
Mono B on the day before solstice (June 20) in 2013. A marker points to the solstice sunset. Charles Stanish

Archaeological surveys revealed large, ancient mounds in the valley. Over three field seasons, Stanish and his colleagues mapped these mounds, as well as nearby rock lines associated with each mound. They found 71 geoglyph lines or segments, 353 rock cairns, rocks forming circles or rectangles, and one point at which a series of lines converged in a circle of rays. The researchers also excavated one cluster of man-made mounds.

The excavations and mapping revealed a carefully built environment. Some long lines marked the spot where the sun would have set during the June solstice (the winter solstice in the Southern Hemisphere). Two U-shaped mounds also pointed toward the June solstice sunset, and the largest platform mound on the site lined up with the solstice as well. These lines and mounds probably served as a way to mark time during festivals, Stanish said.

Some lines are set out to frame pyramid structures, Stanish said. The lines are parallel, but because parallel lines seem to converge with distance, these framing lines appear to point directly at pyramids. Other lines run parallel to roads that are still used today, Stanish said.

"I don't think people needed the signposts, but it was more kind of a ritualized thing, where you come down and everything's prepared," he said.

In that way, Stanish said, the lines are like pottery: one invention used for multiple purposes.

"Native Americans in this part of the world were extremely ingenious," he said.

-- Stephanie Pappas, Live Science

This is a condensed version of a report from LiveScience. Read the full report. Follow Stephanie Pappas on Twitter and Google+. Follow @livescience on Twitter, Facebook & Google+.

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