More than 50 years ago Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods? claimed the 2,000-year-old Nazca Lines in southern Peru were ancient airfields for UFOs.
Däniken and his “ancient alien” followers ask a simple question: The massive designs can only be seen from the sky, so who was intended to see them if not ancient aliens?
The answer is migratory birds.
A range of direct evidence shows the Nazca Lines were likely the backdrop for ritual celebrations welcoming migratory birds that were believed to be divine emissaries of the sun. Etched into the desert at an altitude of 4,000 feet, the Nazca Lines are located directly beneath a route of the Pacific Americas Global Bird Migration Flyway, according to BirdLife International migration maps.
Most of the animals depicted at the Nazca Lines are bird species believed to play divine roles in human affairs, including the Andean condor (a vulture), the hummingbird, the owl and the macaw. Similar high-altitude designs found up and down the Americas, known as geoglyphs, were typically built where two global flyways overlap, producing a high population and wide diversity of bird species.
Dozens of ancient and indigenous cultures around the world believed that certain migratory birds, often waterfowl, delivered exotic seeds from beyond the horizon each spring and on their fall migration flew the souls of the dead to a heavenly paradise. The widespread nature of these beliefs is demonstrated in my book, Church of Birds: an eco-history of myth and religion, which is being released tomorrow, March 31, from John Hunt Publishing, which produced this new video on the Nazca Lines.
Seed-bearing birds in science and myth
Early farming cultures around the world consistently developed where two or more global bird flyways converged, likely reflecting a mythic belief that migratory birds delivered seeds from beyond the horizon every spring, a belief recently shown to be scientifically accurate.
Migratory birds were officially found to be “vectors of (seed) dispersal” in a study published in January 2016 by The Royal Society of Biology in London. Based on two seasons of cutting open migratory birds in the Canary Islands, the study concluded that birds deliver enough viable seeds between their seasonal grounds to substantially diversify the flora over time.
In other words, migratory birds have long operated as agents of biodiversity around the world.
In Peru, the busiest corridor of bird migration runs southeast through the Andes where the Pacific Americas migration flyway converges with the Central Americas flyway, forming a corridor that passes over Chavín de Huántar, Cuzco, Machu Picchu and the sacred Lake Titicaca before bearing due south over the Sajama Lines and a host of once-sacred volcanoes.
Seed-bearing birds were celebrated at the Old Temple at Chavín de Huántar, built about 2,850 years ago at an altitude of 10,335 feet in the Central Andes. In the middle of a circular plaza in front of the Old Temple once stood the Tello Obelisk, bearing an image etched in granite of a raptor dropping peanuts from the sky. In this context it’s plausible the Nazca Lines were the backdrop for a ritual welcome of migratory birds from the north and the seeds they carried with the spring rains.
Attracting birds with shellfish
Recently unearthed among the Nazca Lines were stone altars surrounded by walls packed with the broken shells of crayfish, crabs and mollusks along with fragments of pottery that was intentionally smashed.
The shellfish and broken pots were likely part of a ritual calling for rain, according to Johny Isla, director of the Andean Institute of Archaeological Studies, who appeared on a 2019 episode of “Blowing Up History” on the Discovery channel.
The spring rainy season in Peru begins in September, the same month when 79 migratory bird species arrive from points north. Conflating spring rain with the simultaneous arrival of migratory birds is a near-universal phenomenon embodied by mythic beings such as the Thunderbird, which was thought to cause thunder and lightning.
In popular culture the Thunderbird is associated with Native Americans but the motif dates back to the early farming cultures of Mesopotamia, where the winged Ninurta was the god of spring storms as well as farming.
If the Nazca Lines were the backdrop for rituals to welcome both migratory birds and the rainy season, high priests might have broken pots full of shellfish on the altars so the odor would attract the birds, hungry after their long journey. Many Nazca pots bore images of crayfish and crabs.
Birds and the human soul
The critical role played by seed-bearing birds was powerful motivation to ritually engage with avian deities. Scholars of ancient religions, such as 20th century historian Mircea Eliade, describe these attempts to communicate with divine beings as “magico-religious schema.”
Delivering seeds wasn’t the only divine role assigned to birds in Peru and around the world – they were also believed to help human souls navigate the afterlife. Emerging about 2,800 years ago along the coast of southern Peru, the Paracas culture bundled mummies in clothing covered with birds in a checkerboard pattern. In the outstretched wings of each bird were human heads.
The mummy’s symbolic clothing was likely intended to help the soul transform into a bird/human hybrid to navigate the afterlife, according to Anne Paul, author of Paracas Ritual Attire (University of Oklahoma Press, 1991). The Paracas also built geoglyphs that pointed to ceremonial mounds.
Emerging about 2,300 years ago just inland from the southern coast, the Nazca used similar symbols, including a ceramic vessel with tiny human faces painted in the wings of a bird. Further evidence shows the Nazca likely attracted vultures to devour dead bodies, a cross-cultural practice known as sky burial. A double-spouted Nazca pot shows a vulture with its beak nipping the arm of a headless human.
Emerging about 1,900 years ago in northern Peru the Moche buried vultures with the elite and decorated pots with depictions of vultures escorting people to the underworld. The vulture depicted in Peruvian art was the high-flying Andean condor, long celebrated as an emissary of the sun god. Assisted by their 10-foot wingspan, Andean condors migrate from the mountains and over the Nazca Lines to the coastline in summer, attracted by the discarded placenta of breeding sea lions. Perhaps the Nazca also smashed post of shellfish on the high-altitude altars to attract scavenging condors to the ground to play their crucial role in sky burials.
The ritual attempt to attract birds may have included the high-pitched, bird-like music of flutes made from the bones of condors and pelicans, similar to those excavated up the coast in Caral. A five-hole flute made from the wing bones of a griffon vulture was discovered in Hohle Fels Cave in southern Germany in 2008 and estimated to be 42,000 years old. Flutes made from the wing bones of swans were discovered in a cave in southern France and found to be more than 20,000 years old.
Attracting birds to sacred sites
Because birds were perceived as a vital and necessary cog in the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. Pharaohs, kings and tribal chiefs spent enormous amounts of time and treasure building sacred sites of every kind, typically through a vast collaboration of virtually everyone in the region.
Embodied by a statue of Pharaoh Khufu with Horus the falcon, leaders across the ancient world needed to convey the message that they were attuned to the cycle of sacred birds and would assist the winged deities in their continued delivery of exotic seeds in spring and the flying of souls to the heavens.
The Temple at Karnak in Egypt featured a shallow pool bigger than a football field for the Sacred Geese of Amun, doubtless a peaceful spot for birds to rest and refuel along the Nile’s busy bird migration route.
Greek and Roman temples around the Mediterranean featured pools, fountains and gardens inhabited by domesticated waterfowl along with fruit trees to attract wild birds.
In Cambodia, Tonle Sap Lake is one of the largest wintering grounds for migratory birds in Southeast Asia and nearby is the largest temple complex in the world at Angkor Wat, where a massive rectangular canal system creates a highly unusual shape from a bird’s eye view.
With its vast shallow pool and extensive flower gardens, the Taj Mahal in India is hard to miss from above and a truly inviting habitat for migratory birds passing by the tomb on a route of the Central Asia/South Asia Flyway.
In Osaka, Japan, the 700-year-old tomb of Emperor Nintoku was built on a small island in a large artificial lake, located at the landfall of a route on the East Asia/Australasia Flyway.
Across Ireland, Scotland, England and western France, more than 1,300 henges typically featured concentric circles of ditches filled with water that flashed in the sunlight like a giant target. Again, an unnatural shape indicated the presence of water from a bird’s eye view.
Sacred theater in Ohio
In southwest Ohio, The Great Serpent Mound was likely built by the Adena culture about 2,000 years ago, when the mythic Thunderbird ruled the sky and a great serpent governed the earth. Built on a high ridge where the Central and Atlantic Americas Flyways converge in a narrow corridor below the Great Lakes, the serpentine shape is 1,300 feet long and can only be seen from the sky.
The serpent’s mouth stretches around an egg-shaped mound, possibly a magico-religious attempt to set the stage for an epic battle between the Thunderbird and the serpent. In the late 19th century, a similar serpent mound was found at Loch Nell in Scotland, also with a stone ring at the snake’s head. The age of the Loch Nell mound is unknown, but another serpent mound found in 2007 during a highway project in Herefordshire, England, was estimated to be about 4,000 years old.
Where the Pacific and Central Americas Flyways converge in a north-south running corridor in north-central Wyoming, a legend of the Crow tribe says a boy on a vision quest built a medicine wheel at the 9,600-foot summit of Bighorn Medicine Mountain.A Crow legend says the boy drove away a fox that was attacking baby eaglets and was rewarded by the mother eagle, which flew him to the sky and healed a burn on his face. The largest concentration of medicine wheels in North America can be found in Alberta, Canada, where the same two bird migration flyways overlap.
The same two flyways converge in central New Mexico, where the boundary of the Tiwa village of Gran Quivira is in the shape of a goose that’s clearly visible in aerial photos. The nearby village of Quarai is in the shape of a songbird. In Native American myths of the Southwest, a mockingbird led people up and out of the underworld with its song and gave them the gift of language.
The danger of Däniken
Despite being convicted for fraud and embezzlement the same year Chariots of the Gods? was published in 1968 and serving a one-year term in a Swedish prison in 1970, Erich von Däniken’s books have sold 72 million copies.
Over the last 50 years, the idea of paleocontact with extra-terrestrials has become mainstream. The TV show “Ancient Aliens” has been in production since 2010 despite criticism of the History channel for giving airtime to unproven theories that titillate viewers with paltry evidence woven together with faulty logic.
Critics have accused Däniken of being careless in his research, citing a list of logical and factual errors. Author Jason Colavito accused him and other ancient alien theorists of racism in his book, The Cult of Alien Gods (Prometheus, 2005).
“The underlying message of von Däniken’s work has long been that non-white peoples are incapable of achieving great things without help from an outside force,” wrote Colavito.
A similar phenomenon occurred in the early 18th century, when the insular world of English antiquarians speculated wildly about who built the megalithic mounds in the Boyne Valley of County Meath, Ireland. Scholars of the time assumed that natives of Ireland couldn’t have built the well-engineered mounds and speculated that the Phoenicians, Egyptians or Danes had constructed them.
A similar vein of prejudice surfaced a century later in the U.S., where scholars and politicians insisted that burial mounds found all over the Midwest could not have been built by the Indian tribes encountered by Europeans; They speculated that the sophisticated mounds were constructed by an earlier “civilized” nation that had been overrun.
While farmers routinely destroying hundreds of mounds, the Smithsonian Institution published a detailed book on indigenous earthworks in 1849, providing a full record of the structures as they appeared at the time. The book professed not to speculate on who built the mounds, but suggested they were built by a “civilized” culture.
The highest concentration of mounds in the U.S. is found where the Central Americas and Atlantic Americas flyway’s overlap, developed under the very large umbrella of the Mississipian cultures, which shared cultural and religious traditions and traded over a vast region from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, including the exchange of beautifully crafted religious icons, including birdmen.
(Ben H. Gagnon is the author of Church of Birds: an eco-history of myth and religion, which was released today, March 31, from John Hunt Publishing in London; it’s available to order here and from other booksellers. More information about the book can be found at this website, including a link to a new YouTube video on the Nazca Lines.)