Maria Reiche: Why the Mathematician Guarded Peru's Mysterious Nazca Lines
On what would have been her 115th birthday, Google celebrates revered mathematician Maria Reiche with her very own Google Doodle. Sometimes referred to as the “Lady of the Lines,” Reiche is best known for her decades-long study of Peru’s Nazca Lines, a series of geoglyphs thought to be 2,000 years old.
Reiche, who was born in Germany in 1903, was a scholar of mathematics, astronomy, and geography. Emigrating to Peru to work as a governess for the German consul’s children in 1932, she would later take up work with historian Paul Kosok as his assistant in studying the ancient figures, which are made up of hundreds of animal and geometric shapes. Reiche would go on to dedicate her life to attempting to decrypt the lines as well as ensuring their preservation.
What Are the Nazca Lines?
The Nazca Lines, created by the Nazca people in an area roughly 200 miles southeast of Lima, have remained something of a mystery for nearly a century. Best visible from an aerial view, the lines appear as massive etchings in the earth that stretch in some instances for up to 30 miles. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) reports that while their exact purpose and date of origin remain a topic of debate, the lines are thought to have originated between 500 B.C. and A.D. 500 to serve either ritualistic or astronomical purposes.
According to National Geographic, the Nazca Lines comprise more than “800 straight lines, 300 geometric figures, and 70 animal and plant designs” at between 50 to 1200 feet in length. The lines have been a World Heritage Site since 1994.
Why Did Maria Reiche Study Them?
Reiche dedicated her life’s work to studying possible astronomical intentions for the lines, positing that they may have represented significant astronomical events or constellations. Google notes in its doodle that the lines are presently “believed to have served a more ceremonial purpose,” and UNESCO states that they’re thought to “have had ritual astronomical functions.”
Though Reiche’s theories about the meaning of lines are debated, she is nonetheless credited with being an integral advocate of their continued preservation. Her 1998 obituary in The Independent reports she was awarded a special silver medal by UNESCO earlier the same year.
“It would be to have a very low opinion of the ancestors, to suppose that all this immense and meticulously accurate and detailed work, done with conscientious perfection, had as its sole purpose the service of a primitive superstition or a sterile cult of the ancestors,” she’s quoted as saying of the lines by the Maria Reiche International Association for Art & Science. “Here we have the testimony on a large scale and unique in the world of the first awakening of the exact sciences in the evolution of humanity, gigantic effort of the primitive mind that is reflected in the greatness of the execution under the vast sky of the immense pampas and lonely, swept by the wind and burnt by the sun.”