The "Hummingbird" at Nazca Peru

The "Hummingbird" at Nazca Peru

Grounding the Nazca Balloon

Is there evidence for a “Nazca smoke balloon” or is it all just hot air?

The Nazca lines and designs have been separated from the ancient people who created them by various authors who have sought to put our own modern mindset on their creations. It can be difficult for someone today to understand why the ancient Nazca would put such time and energy into creating these lines on the ground, especially someone that does not make any attempt to study the Nazca and their environment.

One of the authors who has attempted to put a modern thought pattern onto this ancient creation is Jim Woodman in his book Nazca: Journey to the Sun. Woodman argues that the ancient Nazca could have flown, and that they did this using hot-air smoke balloons. In this article, I am going to examine the information and evidence that Woodman presented in his book, contrasting his opinions with those of archaeologists and anthropologists who have studied the Nazca people and the lines for decades. This has been a time consuming process, since like most alternative history books, Woodman did not reference his sources, provide detailed information, or images depicting his visual evidence that could be analyzed.

After flying over the Nazca pampa in an airplane Woodman tells a colleague:

“I know damned well someone flew at Nazca,” I kept insisting. “You simply can’t see anything from ground level. You can’t appreciate any of it from anywhere except from above. You can’t tell me the Nazca builders would have gone to the monumental efforts they did without ever being able to see it.”1

With this modern, and incorrect, viewpoint in mind Woodman attempted to prove that the Nazca could have flown. To do so, he gathered information and constructed a hot-air smoke balloon using material available to the ancient Nazca people. While the lift for the balloon was provided by hot air the porous material was “sealed” by the smoke and soot from the fire. In this fashion a very short manned flight of approximately two minutes was successful.

It is incorrect to say that the lines can not be seen from the ground. They are visible from atop the surrounding foothills. The credit for the discovery of the lines goes to Peruvian archaeologist Toribio Mejia Xesspe who spotted them when hiking through the foothills in 1927. 2

With the assistance of a local grave robber, Woodman plundered through the Nazca burial grounds gathering samples of textiles. He had these textiles analyzed and found that the weave is extremely tight and the thread count very high. He marveled that modern textiles do not come close to such high quality.3 Had Woodman searched the academic literature rather than plundering through ancient graves, he could have found this same information.

The Nazca are renowned for their weaving skills. Using varying techniques such as interlocking warp and weft, needle-knitting or cross knit loop stitching to create three dimensional textiles the Nazca artisans created diverse fabrics, with different embellishments and coloring that served many different functions. The fabrics they created include plainweave, double cloth, gauze, tapestry, plaiting, embroidery, brocade, and tie-dye. 4 Their talents were certainly not limited to creating the tight weave that Woodman encountered in the tombs. What was the motivation to create such sumptuous fabrics?

Even before the cultivation of cotton, the early Andeans twined and looped grasses and reeds into mats. These mats had a variety of uses but one, which must be noted here, is that they were used in burials as outer wrappings for the body of the deceased. Twining, the antecedent of weaving, is associated with burials at the early date of 7,000 BC in Chinchorro burials where the grass mats were used as part of the mummification process as well as outer wrappings and clothes. 5

Cotton began to be cultivated around 3,500 BC in the Supe, Pativilica and Fortaleza valleys and weaving technology advanced almost instantly with the use of spindle whorls and dyes. 6 This technology culminated with the development of the loom around 2,000 BC7 By the time of the Nazca there were thousands of years of experience and improvement in the weaving skills of the Andean people.

Weaving was an art practiced by almost all Andean women from the peasants to the elite classes. It was the method in which a woman clothed her family, and a skillful weaver also generated wealth and status based on the fineness of her weaving. Fine cloth was used as a form of currency, not only as a trade good but also to pay tribute or taxes. The elite and priestly classes of the Nazca society wore high quality cloth decorated and styled in a manner that indicated their status.8

In 1927 Julio Tello unwrapped mummies from the Paracas culture, which directly preceded the Nazcan, some of the most beautifully decorated and finely woven materials found thus far in Peru were recovered from those mummy bundles.9 Some of the Paracas mummies were wrapped in so many layers of fine material that the mummy bundles were five feet in diameter.10 Nazca mummies were wrapped in layers of high quality plainweave material.11 At Cahuachi, the Nazcan ceremonial center, a post Nazca Wari tomb was discovered. In this tomb the walls were draped with textiles and the mummy was placed on a seat wrapped with beautifully woven and colored material.12 The Inca wrapped their deceased in the best clothing they owned, the finest of which was called cumbi.13

As has been shown, from the Chinchorro to the Inca the Andean people used some of the finest material they had to wrap their deceased. Therefore, it is no wonder that Woodman found textiles with a high thread count and an extremely fine weave in Nazca Valley burials. Also it is not clear from reading his book if Woodman made any attempt to ensure that the material he acquired came from Nazca period graves or the later Wari graves. In his book Woodman writes that his guide took him to Estaquería to search for material.14 Archaeological work at this site has thus far placed it in the late Nazca Valley chronology, which would make it a Wari site.15 Woodman himself admitted that neither he nor his guide had found any material of the size needed for a hot air smoke balloon.16

© Philip Baird
Displaced from their tombs by looters, two Nazca mummy bundles retain part of their textile wrappings.

Woodman claimed that he was given some pottery shards that show images of balloons and kites.17 It is difficult to analyze these since the book does not contain a single picture of these shards. This is very odd since the shards were given to him, and were apparently in his possession at the time that he wrote this book. If these shards are such strong evidence of Nascan flight, why did he not display them in his book? It is a difficult task to take an image from a shard and try to identify it when one has no knowledge or understanding of the culture that created it, or their iconography. One is in fact flying blind to attempt to do so.

One image of a shard with a “balloon” and credited to Woodman was included in Evan Hadingham’s book Lines to the Mountain Gods: Nazca and the Mysteries of Peru. Hadingham however identified the image on the shard as a sprouting bean, which is undoubtedly correct.18

Figure 1

Beans of many varieties were a longstanding part of the Andean diet and were often shown in the designs on Nazca pottery, even images of trophy heads on pottery and textiles would often be shown sprouting beans. Figure 2, taken from a Nazca pot shows beans and other agricultural products sprouting from a Nazca agricultural god.

Figure 2

Figure 3 is an image of some of the various ways beans have been shown on Nazca pottery. These beans appear to be almost identical in shape and design to the image shown in Evan Hadingham’s book that Woodman claims is a hot air balloon.

Figure 3

The Nazca people were extremely proficient at pottery and large numbers of it are now in museums and collections worldwide. A search of the literature showed no Nazca pottery that displays a balloon or kite of any type.

Another piece of “evidence” that Woodman presents in his book is a letter from a man named Jay Hasheider.

Mike [DeBakey] also brought news of a fascinating letter from Jay Hasheider, a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer in El Salvador, who had just made a lengthy study of primitive ritual smoke balloons now being used by provincial Indians throughout Central and South America. The letter detailed several tribes that still launched smoke balloons at religious festivals throughout the year. Hasheider had even discovered that the ancient Quechua Indian language of the Andes contained a word for balloon maker. The report enthusiastically endorsed our theory that the ancient Peruvians had flown. 19

At first glance this seems to be powerful evidence to support Woodman’s claims. However, problems arise when the statements made are researched. Woodman said that the letter “details” several tribes who use smoke balloons but he did not tell us the names of the tribes. Providing us with these names would have provided strong support for his claims. Why did he fail to list the names of these tribes?

My own search through the anthropological databases failed to find any studies on this practice, either in Central or South America. Realizing that there are anthropological journals that I do not have access to, or that I could have missed information, I contacted various anthropologists and archaeologists in both Central and South America. No one that I contacted has ever heard of this practice.20

Just as he failed to tell us the names of the tribes ‘detailed” in Hasheider’s letter, Woodman also failed to tell us the Quechua word for “balloon maker.” Woodman’s description of the Quechua language is somewhat misleading. He accurately said that it is an ancient language, but it is also a modern living language spoken by over thirteen million Andeans today. It is quite likely that there is also a Quechua word for automobile, but that doesn’t mean that the ancient Peruvians had them.

I contacted a Quechua linguist, Paul Heggarty, and asked him about Woodman’s assertion. Heggarty knew of no word for “balloon maker.” Consultations in Quechua dictionaries did turn up the word ‘putuku’ as a translation for the Spanish word ‘globo’, but ‘globo’ has various meanings, only one of which is a hot air balloon. Heggarty consulted an associate of his, the native Cuzco Quechua speaker Ceasar Morante Luna, for whom the word ‘putuku’ refers only to something “small, round and hollow, like a gourd.” Neither Heggarty nor Morante knew of any tradition of hot air balloons in Peru among the native peoples; to refer to one the Spanish loanword ‘globo’ would be used.

Throughout the book Woodman repeatedly referred to “Inca legends” saying that these legends told of the Incas flying to the sun. Unfortunately, once again we have no information on what legends these are. They are mentioned in no more detail. They can be dismissed almost entirely with one bit of factual information: the Inca are not the Nazca. There are 800 years between the fall of the Nazca culture and the rise of the Inca. Using Inca legends to extrapolate Nazca beliefs backward is poor methodology; however, we will examine some of Woodman’s claims in this area.

Woodman claimed, based on Inca legends, that the Nazca would send their dead off to join the sun in these hot-air smoke balloons. These balloons would drift until they lose altitude and crash into the Pacific Ocean. There are two problems with this concept.

First, the most practical problem: the prevailing winds in this area are west to east. Any Nazcan dead drifting up would not be blown into the sea but instead, would crash into the Andes Mountains, where presumably, their remains and that of their balloon could have been found. The second problem is that this idea contradicts everything that we know about how the Nazca people treated their dead.

The Nazca people buried their dead in pit style tombs, the higher status or richer the tomb the deeper the pit.21 As did many cultures in the Andes, the Nazca practiced a form of ancestor worship. One of the tenets of this practice is that one must know where an ancestor’s physical remains are in order to make offerings to them and ask them for favors and help. There are quite a number of tombs at Nazca that have tomb markers called mira. It has been suggested that these markers serve the purpose of identifying the buried remains.22 For a person in a culture that practiced ancestor worship it would be equally disastrous to have an ancestor who had sunk in the ocean or who had crashed into the mountains.

As stated above, the Inca are not the Nazca. While the Inca also practiced ancestor worship, their custom was to worship their deceased Kings, after death the bodies of these Kings would be placed in the Sun Temple at Cuzco.23 However, could the common Inca have been physically sent off to the sun? This would be a unique situation in which the commoners of a society are given a more elaborate posthumous treatment than royalty. However, to put this line of reasoning firmly behind us it is necessary to examine that possibility and turn to the oldest written accounts we have of the Inca mortuary practices. After all, if they had sent their dead off to the sun in hot-air smoke balloon, it is conceivable that no evidence remains.

In the early to mid-1600’s two Spanish Priests, Father Bernabe Cobo and Father Pablo Joseph de Arriaga, wrote about the religious and burial customs of the Incas. Their writings are available to us today. After reading through both of their accounts, particularly their descriptions of burial practices and sun worship, I found no suggestion of sending Inca dead, of any social status, to the sun.

The Inca did not think of the sun as a physical place, but rather as a man who was defied and who was called Apu Inti, which translates as Lord Sun. Quoting from Father Bernabe Cobo:

They visualized the Sun in their imagination as if it were a man, and consequently they said that the Moon was his wife and the stars were the daughters of them both. 24

The Inca did, in times of crisis, sacrifice humans to their gods. Could these sacrificial victims have been physically sent to the sun? Early Spanish chroniclers recorded how the remains of these sacrifices were treated, and we have archaeological evidence as well. Sacrificial victims, mostly young children and women, were either buried at a temple or placed at mountain top shrines. 25

Finally, Woodman brings forward a named Inca legend in an attempt to show that the Nascans flew. Woodman said, “The Antarqui legend says the Incas used a small boy to fly, which means they were well aware of the importance of payload and lift.”26

In 1572 Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa wrote History of the Incas in which he mentions the legend of Antarqui. In this story Tupac Inca is trying to get information about an enemy he is fighting and seeks to confirm what some merchants have told him:

Yet he did not lightly believe the navigating merchants, for such men, being great talkers, ought not to be credited too easily. In order to obtain fuller information, and as it was not a business of which news could easily be got, he called a man, who accompanied him in his conquests, named Antarqui who, they all declare, was a great necromancer and could even fly through the air. Tupac Inca asked him whether what the merchant mariners said was true. Antarqui answered, after having thought the matter well out, that what they said was true, and that he would go there first. They say he accomplished this by his arts, traversed the route, saw the islands, their people and riches, and, returning, gave certain information of all to Tupac Inca. 27

Clearly from this, the earliest recording of the story, Antarqui is a man, not a boy, and he is a shaman or necromancer who flew “by his arts.”

Shamanism exists in many cultures worldwide both ancient and modern, one of the most common aspects of shamanism is magical flight. Under the influence of hallucinogenic plants shamans often have an out of body experience or “soul flight.” These flights can take place over both familiar and unfamiliar landscapes. This feeling of flight under the influence of a hallucinogenic is not limited to shamans, the majority of people who have ingested these plants have also experienced “flight.”28

In Peru Banisteriopsis Caapi is often used for this purpose, this woody vine, which has the Quechua name ayahuasca is prepared by boiling the bark of the vine into a tea. Ayahuasca is often called the purge because it causes diarrhea and vomiting, this purge is thought by the shamans to remove toxins from the body and thereby frees the shaman for “soul flight.”29 While in this “flight” the shaman has varied experiences but for the purposes of understanding the Antarqui legend one that must be emphasized is that of seeing distant countries and cities and being able to report on what has been seen there. In clinical tests on urban dwellers the most commonly reported effect of ayahuasca is also that of flying, either as a “ball of energy” or after having sprouted wings. 30

Trichocereus pachanoi, commonly called the San Pedro Cactus is another hallucinogenic plant used by Andean shamans. This cactus has the highest concentration of mescaline of any known plant.31 Like ayahuasca the method of ingesting the cactus is to boil it for several hours and drink it, and like ayahuasca one of the most commonly reported effects is that of “soul flight.” Remains of this plant have been found at Cahuachi, the Nazcan ceremonial center, and the plant is depicted on a number of pieces of Nazca pottery.

The shaman Antarqui having flown “by his arts” is a much more plausible explanation and has more supporting evidence in the Andean cultural context of “soul flight,” rather than the modern concept of a hot-air smoke balloon.

“Soul flight” and the hallucinogenic effects of these two plants can also explain the images of “flying men” that Woodman describes on Nasca pottery and textiles. Once again Woodman failed to supply any images of these “flying men.” These are however rather famous images and I am familiar with them. It would be more accurate to say that these images depict a hybrid combination of man and feline that flies, often, with the aid of wings. As far back as the Chavin culture in 1,000 BC there are images of supernatural beings, part man and part feline holding a San Pedro cactus, and South American shamans still today believe they can transform themselves into a jaguar or other type of feline by ingesting the cactus.32

When Woodman flew his balloon at Nazca he inflated the envelope by digging a pit, filling it with wood, and feeding the hot air and smoke into the balloon via a tunnel. Woodman claims that such burn pits with “charred rocks” are present however no evidence of any fires large enough to inflate a balloon have been found at Nazca. Markus Reindel, of the Organisation des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts, has excavated what Woodman calls “burn pits” and discovered that they are in fact small shrines where offerings were made that have helped illuminate the purpose of the lines.33

Woodman ends his book with this statement that he made to the press after his balloon experiment at Nazca:

Nazca was not an ancient landing field – it was just the opposite. The lines, burn pits and “runways” were once takeoff sites for a religion that worshipped the sun. Our flight was a modern demonstration of an ancient religious ceremony.

With this article I have shown that the “evidence” that Woodman put forward to support his theory of Nazca flight is flawed. Researchers with decades of experience at Nazca have amassed evidence that shows that the Andean people believed that the gods lived in the mountains, and they prayed to these gods in various ways for the water that the mountain gods alone could give. The last thirty years have been remarkable ones in Nazca research and the results of that research point to the purpose behind the lines being related to fulfilling a need for water in a parched environment through the veneration of ancestors and the worship of mountain gods. The Nazca lines have nothing to do with balloons


[1] Woodman, Jim. 1977 Nazca: Journey to the Sun, page 39

[2] McClintock, Jack. 2000. “The Nasca Lines Solution” Discover, page 76

[3] Woodman, Jim. 1977 Nazca: Journey to the Sun, page 87

[4] Silverman, Helaine and Proulx, Donald 2002 The Nasca, page 63

[5] Arriaza, Bernardo T. 1995 Beyond Death: The Chinchorro Mummies of Ancient Chile, pp. 93 and 95-105

[6] Doyon-Bernard, S.J. 1990 “From Twining to Triple Cloth: Experimentation and Innovation in Ancient Peruvian Weaving (ca 5000-400 B.C.)”, pp. 69-70

[7] Doyon-Bernard, S.J. 1990 “From Twining to Triple Cloth: Experimentation and Innovation in Ancient Peruvian Weaving (ca 5000-400 B.C.)”, page 71

[8] Textile decoration and style indicating status: Silverman, Helaine and Proulx, Donald 2002 The Nasca, pp. 62-63, 225, and 75 also see Silverman, Helaine 1988 “Cahuachi: Non-Urban Cultural Complexity on the South Coast of Peru”, page 421. Textiles as trade goods: Silverman, Helaine and Proulx, Donald 2002 The Nasca, page 93

[9] Hadingham, Evan. 1987 Lines to the Mountain Gods: Nazca and the Mysteries of Peru, page 145

[10] Hadingham, Evan. 1987 Lines to the Mountain Gods: Nazca and the Mysteries of Peru, page 149

[11] Carmichael, Patrick H. 1991 “Nasca Burial Patterns: Social Structure and Mortuary Ideology”, pages 166 and 168

[12] Silverman, Helaine and Proulx, Donald 2002 The Nasca, page 271

[13] Cobo, Father Bernabe. 1653 Inca Religion and Customs, page 250 and 263

[14] Woodman, Jim. 1977 Nazca: Journey to the Sun, page 58

[15] Silverman, Helaine and Proulx, Donald 2002 The Nasca, pages 7 and 123

[16] Woodman, Jim. 1977 Nazca: Journey to the Sun, pages 56-57

[17] Woodman, Jim. 1977 Nazca: Journey to the Sun, page 63-64

[18] Hadingham, Evan. 1987 Lines to the Mountain Gods: Nazca and the Mysteries of Peru, page 42

[19] Woodman, Jim. 1977 Nazca: Journey to the Sun., page 66

[20] Persons contacted: David Webster, Daniel Sandweiss, Michael E. Moseley, Donald A. Proulx, Paul Heggarty, Evan Hadingham, and Bernard Ortiz de Montellano

[21] Silverman, Helaine and Proulx, Donald 2002 The Nasca, page 219

[22] Silverman, Helaine and Proulx, Donald 2002 The Nasca, page 220

[23] Hadingham, Evan. 1987 Lines to the Mountain Gods: Nazca and the Mysteries of Peru, page 215-216

[24] Cobo, Father Bernabe. 1653 Inca Religon and Customs, page 25

[25] Verano, John W. 1995 “Where Do They Rest? The Treatment of Human Offerings and Trophies in Ancient Peru”, page 190

[26] Woodman, Jim. 1977 Nazca: Journey to the Sun, page 88

[27] Sarmiento de Gamboa, Pedro 1572 History of the Incas, page 135

[28] Michael Harner ed.1973. Hallucinogens and Shamanism Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 151-190.

[29] Mizrach, Steve 1995 “Ayahuasca, shamanism, and curanderismo in the Andes”

[30] Mizrach, Steve 1995 “Ayahuasca, shamanism, and curanderismo in the Andes”

[31] Hadingham, Evan. 1987 Lines to the Mountain Gods: Nazca and the Mysteries of Peru, page 173

[32] Hadingham, Evan. 1987 Lines to the Mountain Gods: Nazca and the Mysteries of Peru, page 178

[33] “The excavation of small stone buildings on the plateaus illuminated the function of the geoglyphs: Inside the structures, which are associated with the geoglyphs, offerings, apparently laid down in a context of water and fertility cults, came to light. Geoglyphs, temples and sight markings in combination with postholes located near the geoglyphs form a kind of ritual landscape for water and fertility cults, which can be interpreted as the key sacred places of the Nasca population.” From Deutsches Archäologisches Institut website

[34] Woodman, Jim. 1977 Nazca: Journey to the Sun, page 201


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Image Credits:

Figure 1 As shown in Evan Hadingham’s book Lines to the Mountain Gods: Nazca and the Mysteries of Peru. Credited in that book to Jim Woodman, used here within Fair Use guidelines.

Figure 2. Evan Hadingham after Tello, with permission

Figure 3. E. Yacovleff and F.L. Herrera. 1934. “El mundo vegetal de los antiguos peruanos,” Revista del Museo Nacional (Lima) vol III (no. 3): 241-322.


All references to Jim Woodman’s book, Nazca: Journey to the Sun, refer to the paperback version.

My thanks to Joanne Conman for the editorial assistance, and Bernard Ortiz de Montellano for editorial assistance as well as locating a hard to find reference.