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The Sajama Lines April 28th, 2019 by

A mystery unfolds around Mount Sajama, the highest point in Bolivia (6542 meters), a gorgeous snowcapped volcano. Even the base of the mountain is really high: 4200 meters, making the surrounding area too cold for farming, even though it is in tropical latitudes. And in ancient times, only farmers made grand monumental art. Yet the landscape around Mount Sajama is crisscrossed by some 10,000 km of perfectly straight lines, made by ancient people.

The lines are so poorly known that few people in Bolivia have heard of them. Many of the lines are in the Sajama National Park, although they are ignored in park literature. Yet the lines are clearly visible from the air, as I noticed last year when flying over them. They look a bit like giant, interlocking asterisks.

So, on a recent trip to Sajama, Ana and I were able to see that the lines up close. Up close, they look like roads, about 3 meters wide, stripped of all vegetation. Many lines run to hilltops. Some run far up the slopes of the highest mountains, but still end a long way from the icy peaks. Even today those peaks are impossible to climb, except by highly skilled (and slightly crazy) mountaineers.

From the Nazca Lines to the Pyramids of Giza, ancient monuments were made by agrarian societies. The labor came from off-season farmers.  Unskilled workers, specialists and priests were all fed with harvests wrested from farmers. But the area around Sajama is cold for most of the year. In April we woke up to a frost so thick that it covered the backs of the llamas with ice, like a blanket. Not even the hardy, native quinoa will grow here. Not even barley, which grows in the high, cold Alps. So local people continue to pasture large herds of llamas, like their ancestors before them. Hamlets are few, and far between.

Where did the labor come from to build these lines? Did workers migrate in seasonally, carrying their food with them?

On the ground, the lines look like nothing more than a band of sandy soil, where the native brush has been removed. It would have been an unimaginable amount of work to dig out all the deep-rooted needle grass and t’ola plants without steel tools. Millions of people-hours of labor. And, why have the plants not grown back in the last 500 years or so? The volcanic soil around the lines seems to have been only lightly disturbed. Are native plants really so slow to regenerate in this forbidding environment?

The lines are as straight as if made with a theodolite, even when crossing rivers or moving across slopes. Many of the lines come together at the small colonial churches. No doubt the sixteenth century chapels were built on the sites that the native people already held sacred, as jealous priests sought to co-opt the spiritual places of the Andean peoples.

The University of Pennsylvania conducted research on the lines a decade ago, but I’ve been unable to find one of their publications. Why this grand desert site is so under-researched is perhaps as great a wonder as the lines themselves.

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