In the 1970s, an American by the name of Jim Woodman set out to prove his new and radical Nazca Lines theory. While both the purpose and construction of the Nazca desert geoglyphs have often divided scholarly opinion, Woodman’s idea was to come, quite literally, out of the blue. Could the Nazca civilization really have built and flown the world’s first hot air balloon?
A New Nazca Lines Theory
Woodman theorized that the magnificent geoglyphs would not have been made if the Nazca people themselves could not have appreciated the results of their labors. Why, he argued, go to such lengths to create the intricate lines and figures if they could never be seen? Looking down on the Nazca Lines from the air, Woodman became convinced that the Nazca people had taken flight.
While historians do not always agree upon how and why the Nazca Lines were created, there is a general acceptance that they were built by the Nazca civilization. This in turn places the construction of the lines somewhere between 200 BC and 600 AD. That the Nazca had flown, therefore, would seem a somewhat fanciful notion. Woodman, however, was determined to prove his theory.
The Nazca Lines & the Construction of the World’s First Hot Air Balloon
Woodman took into account the highly skilled weaving methods which the Nazca civilization was known to have possessed. He claimed that the construction of a hot air balloon or, more specifically, a hot air smoke balloon was not beyond the capabilities of the ancient civilization. These balloons would have been used both to aid the construction of the Nazca Lines and for “ceremonial flights” over the geoglyphs themselves.
Not settling for pure theory, Woodman approached British ballooning expert Julian Nott with his concept. Together, they set about building, theoretically, the world’s first hot air balloon in the Nazca desert. Using only materials that would have been available to the Nazca (such as totora reeds, cloth, and rope), the giant tetrahedron balloon, Condor I, was completed.
Condor I Takes Flight Above the Nazca Lines, Peru
In 1975, Condor I was prepared for its maiden flight over the Nazca desert. Smoke was used to fill the balloon, helping to seal the porous materials while providing the all-important lighter-than-air lift.
With the balloon inflated, Woodman and Nott confounded their critics by lifting gracefully into the air. A distinctly ungraceful landing followed, but several minutes of flight had been achieved at an average altitude of 300 feet. Woodman and Nott had proved, at the very least, that the Nazca could have flown above the desert.
Criticism of the Nazca Balloon Theory
Scholars and critics were quick to dismiss the Nazca Lines theory put forward by Woodman, despite his valiant airborne display. Historian Katherine Reece thoroughly (and quite relentlessly) counters all of Woodman’s claims in her article entitled “Grounding the Nasca Balloon”.
Woodman’s belief that the Nazca would not have created the lines had they themselves not been able to see them is one of Reece’s primary targets. She sees Woodman’s theory as coming from a “modern, and incorrect, viewpoint”. If the lines were built for the view of the Gods then why would the Nazca people need to see them?
On a more practical note, Reece also points out that “It is incorrect to say that the lines can not be seen from the ground. They are visible from atop the surrounding foothills”. Reece goes on to highlight a plethora of holes in Woodman’s theory, many of which center upon his inconsistent and inexact supporting evidence.
The Legacy of Condor I, the “World’s First Hot Air Balloon”
His practical demonstration may have been spectacular, but Woodman had failed to impress the historic and scientific community. While not as outlandish as Erich von Däniken’s extraterrestrial orientated Nazca theories, Woodman’s hot air balloon concept is largely discredited. However, what Woodman and Nott accomplished with their Nazca hot air balloon was not without lasting merit.
Referring to the successful flight, Julian Nott himself stated: “while I do not see any evidence that the Nazca civilization did fly, it is beyond any doubt that they could have. And so could the ancient Egyptians, the Romans, the Vikings, any civilization”. The successful though short-lived flight of Condor I had raised some interesting questions about aviation history and the history of technological development as a whole.
- Katherine Reece – “Grounding the Nasca Balloon”, www.hallofmaat.com (In the Hall of Ma’at)
- Tahir Shah – Trail of Feathers: In Search of the Birdmen of Peru, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2001, ISBN 1559706139