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Rising Star Dr. Christina Conlee

Archaeologist provides rare insight
into ancient Peruvian culture

Dr. Christina Conlee
Dr. Conlee measures an ancient bone; behind her is a reproduction of the "head jar" she discovered in the Peruvian desert.  Photo by Chandler Prude

They’ve been explained as everything from final landing instructions for alien pilots to walking routes for religious pilgrims to eye candy for the gods of an ancient civilization.

But the mysterious Nasca Lines — hundreds of remarkably long and straight lines, plus an amazing assortment of huge and complex images, visible only from high above 200 square miles of Peruvian desert — aren’t what piqued Dr. Christina Conlee’s interest in Nasca.

“A lot of archaeology has started to concentrate not on the lines, but on the people who made them,” says Conlee, an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology at Texas State. “We’re working a lot on these issues, to get a better idea of the culture and how the lines fit into it.”

Her groundbreaking archaeological studies of the people of the Nasca — whose civilization lasted perhaps 1,000 years, beginning in 100 BC — were funded by the National Geographic Society, and they were the subject of a documentary on the National Geographic Channel and a feature in the magazine earlier this year.

But thrive they did, creating a complex of towns and cities, temples and, yes, the mysterious figures in the desert, which were achieved by digging out two to four inches of the dark-colored rocks of the desert surface and revealing the light-colored soil underneath. The lines and figures have been preserved by the utter lack of rain — estimated at 20 minutes’ worth a year — and absence of wind in the desert, which is in southwestern Peru.

The first modern men to see the figures were pilots flying over the region in the 1920s, and the first archaeologist to study them called them “great Incan ceremonial artifacts.” They have been explained as everything from messages to UFOs (in the 1968 best-seller, Chariots of the Gods) to guides for studying the skies to giant dowsing rods, pointing to underground water flows.

Conlee and many other archaeologists now believe the figures were part of a series of religious practices designed to ensure the continued flow of the life-giving water. Those practices also were part of what turned out to be Conlee’s groundbreaking contribution to the study of the Nasca people.

The people of Nasca practiced decapitation and the ceremonial display of preserved skulls as part of their religion, Conlee says. Several hundred skulls have been found through the years, but no one had been able to determine if they were from vanquished enemies or other non-native peoples — or from the Nasca people themselves.

In 2004, Conlee unearthed a remarkably well-preserved skeleton in a region of the Nasca known as La Tiza. The headless body had been buried with a “head jar,” a piece of pottery decorated with images of a head and of plant life, indicating that the decapitation was indeed part of a fertility ritual.

“There were actually a couple of ‘aha’ moments,” Conlee says of her discovery. “The first came when we uncovered the jar and realized it was a head jar. This made me realize that this was likely a decapitated person, instead of someone whose head had been removed later, and that it was related to a ritual practice.”

The second came when the excavation team discovered evidence that the head indeed had been forcibly removed. And then came a third, thanks to a former classmate at Cal-Santa Barbara.

“Christina was excavating at La Tiza and found burials at places she didn’t expect,” said Dr. Michele Buzon, an assistant professor of anthropology at Purdue University. “She asked if I would join her as the project bioarchaeologist to study the human skeletal remains.”

Buzon, using a process called strontium isotope analysis, determined that the skeleton was of a young man from the local population. The revelation helped shed considerable light on the Nasca people’s rituals and helped further explain the lines and figures in the desert.

“We’re beginning to get a sense of the Nasca lines as places where people did rituals and made offerings to bring water,” Conlee says. “I think these so-called trophy heads are part of the same sort of religious and ritual practices.”