The Sajama Lines

The earliest account of the Sajama Lines in English is a brief reference by traveler Aimé Felix Tschiffely in 1932. Anthropologist Alfred Metraux brought the lines and associated alignments of shrines to the attention of scholars when he published ethnographic fieldwork done in 1931 of the Chipaya and Aymara of the Carangas region. In the 1970s, British writer, photographer, and filmmaker Tony Morrison reported a major network of sacred lines and roadways in the Sajama region of Bolivia. These pathways were built into the surface of the high Bolivian altiplano by clearing away vegetation, soils, and oxidized rocks to expose the lighter soil beneath. While many of these sacred lines extend as far as ten or twenty kilometers (and perhaps further), they all seem to maintain a remarkable straightness despite rugged topography and natural obstacles. The sheer number and length of these lines is often difficult to perceive from ground level, but from the air or hilltop vantage points, they are stunning. Although similar ‘geoglyphs’ have been discovered and studied in the Nazca region of Peru, little such research has occurred in the Sajama.

The Sajama lines are, on average, one to three meters wide, and from a few meters to several kilometers in length. Often, a series of lines radiate from (or converge upon) a common area, usually somewhat elevated, allowing the lines to be seen more easily. These “radial centers” or “ray centers” (a term adapted from the Nazca research of Anthony Aveni) can be the sites of huacas (shrines), chullpas (burial towers), hamlets, or even entire towns. Many lines actually run between such centers, and it appears that some of the modern roads connecting towns may have been built upon these straight lines. In all, the Sajama lines cover an area of approximately 22,000 square kilometers.

Dating the Sajama lines and their construction has proven problematic. Morrison could not find evidence of the Sajama lines in the historical records and thus, concluded that they predate the Spanish conquest (1532). Archaeologist Marcos Michel (1996) dates the lines to late prehistory. Also, given the sheer number of lines and relative area they cover, it seems reasonable that the lines may have been constructed over many generations. Morrison surmises that the reasons for the lines’ persistence are related to both climate and population. The landscape of the high altiplano, with its sparse rainfall and slow-growing vegetation has kept the lines relatively intact. Additionally, the area lost much of its population after the Spanish conquest, as local inhabitants often were worked to death in mines or inflicted with Old World diseases for which they had no natural defense.

The reasons for the original construction of the lines remain a mystery, although several hypotheses exist. Morrison and Johan Reinhard have proposed that that the lines reference high places and volcanic peaks, which have been important in the religious system of the altiplano's past and present inhabitants. Indeed, Morrison contends that the termination points for the majority of lines are "hills and rocky places…and what look like tiny white dots on the hills or at the ends of the lines [are] small white-painted capillas or little chapels which are sacred to the modern inhabitants" (1988: 186). Based on ethnographic observations, Morrison, Reinhard, and Abercrombie each argue that the lines were "pathways" used for pilgrimage or some other religious purpose. Bolivian scholars Teresa Gisbert and Marcos Michel propose that some lines may be associated with pre-Columbian cemeteries that are marked by burial towers (chullpas) and walled hilltop sites (pukaras). Other theories postulate that the lines have astronomical significance, such as position of the sun as it rises or sets on the summer solstice and equinoxes or the position of Pleiades when it first appears in the Andean sky. (Many such notions have been drawn from research and theories about similar lines at Nazca.) Using GIS technology, Tierra Sajama proposes to test these several theories about the Sajama lines.

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