An Introduction to Social Complexity in the Nasca Civilization


An exploration of the emergence of social complexity in the Nasca civilization, through polychrome ceramics, geoglyphs, and ceremonial centers.

Known for its abstract iconography and large geoglyphs, the Nasca culture is indicative of a complex society. Ceremonial centers in Nasca allowed for the dissemination of materialized ideology in order to gather chiefly wealth for creation of the geoglyphs. The ceremonial centers, the geoglyphs, and the polychrome ceramics used to propagate meaning in Nasca are all forms of materialization of ideology.

This article illustrates the emergence of social complexity in the Nasca civilization by describing the connectedness of ceremonial centers, polychrome ceramics, and geoglyphs, and then by providing a theoretical model of ideological materialization and by lastly demonstrating how the model is applicable to the case of the ancient Nasca.

The Nasca in Context

The Nasca civilization of Peru’s south coast flourished from 1-700 A.D. during the Early Intermediate Period before being conquered by the Wari empire in the Middle Horizon, according to Helaine Silverman. Ethnographic and historic data reveal that the Nasca territory demonstrated a severe lack of water and difficulties in resource procurement. The Nasca landscape is one of myriad mountains and desert terrain, throughout which are various plains where illustrations of lines, spirals, animals, and plants can be seen.

Nasca Lines and Iconography

These lines stretch for many meters in all directions across the plains and feature iconography consistent with that of the polychrome ceramics from this culture. During the foundations of the Nasca civilization, people were confined to valley margins so that valley bottoms could be used for agricultural purposes. The majority of people lived in small, rural villages located in the upper valleys of the region and relied on seasonal flooding of the small tributaries fed from highland rainfall. This provided enough water for crops on an annual basis, and a loose alliance of chiefdoms with a mixed agropastoral economy focusing primarily on maize and marine resources developed during this period, according to researcher Kevin Vaughn.

The Ceremonial Center of Cahuachi

Moreover, the Nasca may be identified as a society with complex feasting and pilgrimage, most commonly associated with the ceremonial center of Cahuachi, the regional capital of the Nasca civilization, built two thousand years ago and abandoned 500 years thereafter. This site extends in length for two kilometers along the south bank of the Nasca River and covers approximately 150 hectares. Cahuachi was also the regional pottery production facility for the Nasca civilization where ceramics were created in specialized contexts and circulated through ritual and feasting.

The 9 Phases of Nasca Polychrome Ceramics

Nasca polychrome pottery depicts highly developed and varied iconography, representing the importance of fertility and agriculture as well as religious motifs and depictions of the Nasca’s war-like tendencies. Nine distinct phases characterize the Nasca ceramic tradition. Phases one through four are associated with the Early Nasca and feature heavy iconography of animals and natural elements like wind, while phase five demonstrates a tendency toward more geometrical motifs in what is referred to as the Transitional Nasca. The Late Nasca, phases six and seven, is identified by very abstract iconography and an increase in religious motifs. Lastly, the Disjunctive Nasca, referring to phases eight and nine, features purely abstract iconography and was likely influenced from other cultures in the Peruvian highlands prior to the demise of the Nasca. All of these factors of Nasca society come into play in order to bring about the development of social complexity.

Materialization of Ideology

In ancient societies, the materialization of ideology provided a significant source of social power where resources were difficult to monopolize and physical coercion was not an option. The concrete production and control of ideology allows for the centralization and consolidation of political power. Materialization can take the form of ceremonial events, symbolic objects, monuments, or writing systems. For the purposes of this paper, only the first three forms shall be addressed.

Firstly, ceremonial events are one means by which ideology can be materialized and institutionalized. These events are powerful ways in which power relations are negotiated. Most ceremonial events are very structured, and form and participation are strictly prescribed.

In addition, in ranked societies competition for prestige and power often takes the form of feasting, and the consumption of food requires the use of symbolic paraphernalia in the form of ceramic vessels or plates. Furthermore, because these ceremonial events depict and promote the hierarchical relationships of a society, they are a useful means by which elites can acquire support and power.