Volcanic mountains

Catastrophic volcanic eruption prompted construction of ancient Mayan pyramid, research finds


The pyramid, known as the Campana structure, with volcanic mountains in the background.

The pyramid, known as the Campana structure, with volcanic mountains in the background.
Picture: Akira Ichikawa

About 1,500 years ago, a powerful volcanic eruption devastated what is today El Salvador, plunging the Mayan civilization into a period of temporary decline. New research suggests that a monumental pyramid located near the volcano was built by the Mayans soon after, as a response to the natural disaster.

The eruption of Tierra Blanca Joven is the largest volcanic event in Central America in the past 10,000 years and one of the strongest eruptions on Earth in the past 7,000 years. The best current guess is that the Ilopango caldera blew circa 539 CE, devastating surrounding areas, including nearby Mayan settlements. The white volcanic ash, known as tephra, was waist high up to 22 miles (35 km) from the volcanic vent, and in some places as thick as 33 feet (10 meters).

“Just imagine it looked like snow covering the tropical world,” Akira Ichikawa, the new article’s sole author and archaeologist at the University of Colorado Boulder, wrote to me. “So it would have been fatal for the plants and animals living near the vent.”

TThe eruption was a local disaster, but it also caused a temporary cooling of the climate throughout the northern hemisphere. Many Mayan communities around the volcano had to be abandoned, resulting in a historical period known as “Maya Hiatus”.

Research published today in the scientific journal Antiquity revisits this cataclysmic event to better understand how it affected the Southeast Mayans and how long it took them to recover. There is debate on the matter, with one school of thought believing it took centuries for the Mayans to recover, while others are speculating on a quick comeback. The lack of consensus is linked to the lack of archaeological evidence, as Ichikawa writes in his to study:

Attempts to correlate abrupt environmental changes with decline or social development are complicated by several factors, including population size, social complexity, and economic and political inequalities. In addition, it can be difficult to measure the impact of these disasters on human societies based solely on the magnitude of these dangerous events. Thus, to assess the impact of [Tierra Blanca Joven] on local communities, more archaeological data with a clear chronological context in relation to the event is needed.

To this end, Ichikawa investigated the Mayan site of San Andrés in the Zapotitán Valley, an ancient settlement located 40 km west of the volcano. From 2015 to 2019, it conducted excavations and associated radiocarbon dating to analyze the initial stages of construction of several structures, including a monumental pyramid known as the Campana structure.

The pyramid, built on top of a platform, was the largest structure in the Zapotitán Valley at the time. With a total volume of 43,160 cubic yards (33,000 cubic meters), the pyramid stood 43 feet (13 meters) high and stretched some 130 feet (40 meters) wide.

The structure of Campana and the excavated area.

Picture: Akira Ichikawa / Antiquity

Ichikawa’s work has shown that construction of the Campana structure began within the first five to 30 years after the volcanic eruption, and no more than 80 years after. So, not only did the Mayans return to San Andrés quite quickly, but they also decided to build a gigantic pyramid. This, he argues, is evidence of a rapid rebound by the Mayans after the disaster.

Further, Ichikawa believes that “survivors and / or resettled in the Zapotitán Valley may have built the monumental San Andrés public building in response to the massive eruption …”, as he writes in the study. . The pyramid may have served a religious purpose and was perhaps seen as some kind of protection against the volcano, he said.

As Ichikawa details in the document, the Campana structure was constructed from a combination of volcanic tephra and earthen fill. Incredibly, a good part of the pyramid was therefore built from the volcano itself. It makes sense from a practical point of view, because tephra is an effective building material, but the “white ash emitted by the eruption may have been perceived to have powerful religious or cosmological significance,” according to the document. Indeed, many Mesoamerican people considered mountains and volcanoes to be sacred places. For Ichikawa, the significant use of volcanic ash is the key to his hypothesis.

“Monumental structures or pyramids were seen as metaphors for sacred mountains,” he wrote in his email, adding that these places were linked to the origin of creation, seen as living spaces for people. deities and a conduit to heaven and the underworld. It is possible, he said, that some people saw the eruption as a sign of ‘Angry Earth’, and that by building a large monumental structure out of volcanic ash, they saw maybe came across a solution to calm that anger.

But as Ichikawa also argues, the large-scale project also helped restore social and political order in the Zapotitán Valley. it would have been a huge community effort (estimates place the workforce between 500 and 1,500 people), requiring cooperation and social integration, and it likely brought together eruption survivors and newcomers to the area.

In addition, the homemade construction project could have restored the political power of the rulers in the aftermath of the disaster. That said, Ichikawa doesn’t think coercion was involved during the construction, as a highly hierarchical society did not exist at the time. The project may have started as a community and collaborative effort, but some leaders may have emerged during the construction process, Ichikawa explained. Interestingly, San Andrés was to become the main center of the valley.

Ichikawa speculates that the former residents of San Andrés have returned to rebuild the settlement or that immigrants from a whole new culture, perhaps from Honduras, have resettled in the area. Or maybe a bit of both.

The new article is fascinating, and Ichikawa may be right about the rapid recovery and how the pyramid was built in response to the eruption, but more evidence is needed. He admits so in the newspaper, saying that “more investigation is needed of more sites affected by volcanic events“, as well as future research into how survivors got their food and where it actually came from. the people of San Andrés. Either way, the new research is helping us understand how some Human societies have recovered from sudden and catastrophic environmental change.

Following: These early humans thrived during what should have been a devastating volcanic winter.