Fly high over the Peruvian desert and you will see giant drawings on the ground. Some of them are straight lines, some are spirals and rectangles and trapezoids, and some are animals: whales, ducks, hummingbirds. Today’s Google Doodle celebrates the 115th birthday of Maria Reiche, a German mathematician who became known as the “Lady of the Lines,” the scientist known for studying these so-called Nazca Lines.
Reiche was emigrated to Peru in 1932 to be a governess for children of the German consulate there. Soon after, she learned about the giant line drawings in the desert, built by the ancient Nazcan people, and dedicated the rest of her life to studying them. (Because of the dry desert’s stable climate, the lines were well-preserved.) Over the next half-century, Reiche helped the Peruvian government map the lines, measuring over 1,000 of them. She discovered that some of them were marked for the summer solstice, proposing that the lines were some sort of astronomical calendar.
And she was dedicated to preserving them, too, fighting the government when it wanted to dig canals across them. “I used to live on a flat roof or sleep out in a tent in the desert,” she recalled. “The locals either thought I was a spy or completely mad. Once a drunk threatened me with a stone, so I took out my sextant and pointed it at him. He ran off screaming, and the next day the local papers ran the story of a mad and armed German spy in their midst.”
We still don’t fully understand the Nazca lines or know for sure what they mean, but today they are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Reiche became a Peruvian citizen in 1992, and died in 1998.