Nasca Killer Whale

Part of the Mythic Creatures exhibition.

Can mythic creatures become extinct?

All mythic creatures are mysterious. No one really knows where these stories come from, what they mean, or why they appeal to us so much. The best way to get answers about myths and other stories is to ask the people who tell them. But what if all those people are gone, their songs and stories silent forever? And what if there is no written record of the culture that produced a mythical creature? Anthropologists, archaeologists and psychologists can offer powerful theories and profound insights by studying artifacts. But in many cases, the ultimate answer for questions about myths is: We will never know for certain.

A killer whale... clutching a human head?

The ancient people known today as the Nasca painted this startling creature on their pottery and carved enormous outlines of it into the ground. Who is this beast? What does it do with the human heads it carries? No one knows. The Nasca people lived along the coast of South America in what is now Peru from around AD 1 until about 700. Then they disappeared. Their colorful ceramics are covered with puzzling images such as the mythic killer whale--but there is no one left to explain what these images mean.

At a Glance: Nasca Whale

  • The killer whale is just one of many mythic creatures depicted on Nasca pottery; others look like birds, monkeys, serpents and people.
  • Mythic killer whale has more fins on its back than actual whale
  • Often shown with hands instead of fins
  • Carries a human head, but is not necessarily evil; the Nasca people of Peru themselves collected human skulls. Were they headhunters? Were they tending their own ancestors?

Trophy Heads

Ritually preserved human skulls have been found in many Nasca sites. The taking of trophy heads played an important role in Nasca culture; many mythic beings of the Nasca are shown holding human heads.


The Nasca Lines

The most famous Nasca creations are the immense patterns of lines carved into the ground, still visible today. The lines form mysterious patterns and pictures so large they cannot be seen from the ground--and so were most likely never seen by the Nasca people themselves. Many of these giant pictures depict the same creatures shown on Nasca pottery, including the mythic killer whale. At various times these lines were thought to be roads, a giant calendar, even landing sites for space ships--theories that have all been largely discarded.

Nasca Imagery

During the seven centuries from AD 1 to 700, Nasca ceramics passed through eight different styles. Since imagery they used changed over time, whatever symbolic meanings might apply to a mythic killer whale likely changed over time as well.