Did the ancient Peruvians fly hot-air balloons 1500 years ago?

Condor I

Possible reconstruction of a Nazca balloon flown by Julian Nott and Jim Woodman












This is one of those speculative technology ideas that I find fascinating, the possibility that ancient civilisations may have had the technology to fly.

The lines and designs on the Nazca plains appear to have been drawn to be visible from the air and this has given rise to many “ancient astronaut” type of theories, but it is possible that the inhabitants may have flown themselves, using what are sometimes referred to as “smoke balloons”.

These are essentially hot air balloons where the fabric weave is sealed by using a smoky fire to deposit soot on the cloth. This same method was used by the Montgolfier brothers in their early balloons where they reportedly used old boots and rotten meat to create a smoky fire before launching.

Jim Woodman (a director of the International Explorers Society) collected ancient cloth and rope samples and had them analysed and found them to be more than adequate in both strength and fineness of weave for balloon construction. The experimental balloon, called the Condor I, was constructed by Raven Industries and subsequently flown (in 1975) by Jim Woodman and Julian Nott (world famous balloonist).

Jim Woodman readily admits in his book “Nazca The Flight of Condor I” that “Stated simply, our flight at Nazca was intended to be a modern demonstration of an ancient possibility. Nothing more.”

Subsequently, Julian recreated the flight in Condor II in 2003 for the Japanese network TV-Asahi.

Although this idea of the Nazca glyphs being created with an aerial view in mind has supposedly been “largely discredited” due to the lines being visible from the surrounding foothills (they were discovered that way in 1926), I haven’t seen a good account of how the elements are actually viewed from those hills. Do the figures have the right perspective when viewed from those hills? They certainly appear to be constructed to be viewed from a higher altitude.

Aside from the many flying legends that come from different parts of the world including Peru, and possible depictions of flight on pottery etc., I find it interesting that a Jesuit priest Father Bartolomeu Lourenço de Gusmão who was born and educated in Santos in Brazil by Jesuits (who used Santos as a base for exploration of the South American continent) was able to demonstrate a small hot air balloon in Lisbon to King John V of Portugal in 1709 and was granted a patent on the device.


Legend has it that he flew in a full-sized version a distance of about a kilometre at an altitude of 60 feet however he subsequently had to flee to Spain as he was about to be arrested by the Tribunal of the Inquisition.

Montgolfier Balloon

1783 flight of Mongolfier hot air balloon

The Montgolfier brothers didn’t manage to build a man-carrying balloon until 1783 but the flight by Francois Pilatre de Rosier and Francois Laurent, Marquis d’Arandes on November 21 1783 is usually credited as the first time humankind flew.

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