In the arid desert of southwestern Peru, the Nazca people eked out a perilous existence. They farmed and fished to survive in a part of the world where only four millimetres of rain fall every year. Despite all the obstacles to life in the desert, their culture thrived in the early centuries of the first millennium. They worshipped a wide variety of gods, which are depicted on their strikingly colourful pottery. Most famously, however, the Nazca people drew enormous pictures of their gods in the sand.
The Nazca lines depict many animals thought to represent figures from Nazca religion and mythology. Carefully planned and probably serving some ceremonial purpose, they were made by removing the reddish pebbles that carpet the desert, revealing the lighter clay beneath. The morning mist hardened the lime embedded in the clay, preserving the designs so that we can still puzzle over them today. Among monkeys, spiders and hummingbirds, a whale propels itself through the sand with its powerful tail.
A killer whale is hardly the first animal that comes to mind when imagining what forms a desert people’s god might take. However, water was central to the Nazca religion, reflecting their lifestyle in the unforgiving desert and their proximity to the Peruvian coast. Within this context, the powerful whale becomes a more understandable figure of veneration. Although the whale carved into the sand is innocuous enough, Nazca pottery frequently shows the killer whale with fierce teeth and human heads gripped in each anthropomorphic hand.
Its English nickname of “killer whale” hints that the Nazca weren’t the only people throughout history to recognize the ferocity of one of the ocean’s greatest predators. These highly intelligent and social animals do not attack humans in the wild but gather in groups to hunt all other sea-going animals. They live in matrilineal societies and their culture and dialect vary regionally. Killer whales are not known to be resident in Peru but must have been spotted often enough on the Nazca coast to form an impression on its early residents. Although the Nazca were familiar with other cetaceans, such as the sperm whale whose teeth they used to carve figurines, it was clearly the killer whale that captured their devotion and represented to them the great power of the Pacific Ocean.