Around the fifth or sixth century CE, the volcanic eruption of Tierra Blanca Joven (TBJ) caused massive devastation in El Salvador. Researchers are divided over how the Mayan inhabitants of the area reacted to the natural disaster, but a new study suggests they have proven surprisingly resilient, using rock spat out by the volcano to build a monumental pyramid in decades. following the rash.
As George Dvorsky reports for Gizmodo, Akira Ichikawa, archaeologist at the University of Colorado Boulder, relied on excavations and radiocarbon dating to assess the so-called Campana structure, which once towered over San AndrÃ©s in El Salvador’s ZapotitÃ¡n Valley. His discoveries, published in the journal antiquity, indicate that the Mayans began building the pyramid from tephra, or white volcanic ash, and infill of earth within 5 to 30 years of the eruption. At most, construction began 80 years after the eruption.
âEvents such as eruptions and drought have often been seen as a primary factor in the collapse, abandonment or decline of the ancients,â Ichikawa explains. National Geographic‘s Erin Blakemore. âMy research suggests that ancient people were more resilient, flexible and innovative. “
Last October, a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences postulated that the TBJ eruption took place in 431 CE, blanketing the region with thick volcanic ash and rendering lands within a 50 mile radius uninhabitable for years, if not decades. The largest volcanic event in Central America in 10,000 years, the eruption of the Ilopango caldera also triggered a temporary cooling in the northern hemisphere, notes Mindy Weisberger for Live Science.
Ichikawa’s analysis describes a slightly different scenario, dating the disaster to around 539 CE and suggesting that the Mayans returned to the area earlier than previously believed. The debate over the timing of the eruption, as well as its long-term effects on the Mayan people, is ongoing.
The workers’ choice of tephra as a building material may have had religious or cosmological significance, Ichikawa writes in the study.
âMonumental structures or pyramids were considered metaphors for sacred mountains,â he says. Gizmodo.
Talk with National Geographic, adds the archaeologist, “[The Maya] Perhaps I believed that dedicating a monumental structure to the volcano was a logical and rational way to solve the problem of possible future eruptions.
According to Ruth Schuster of Haaretz, Ichikawa argues that the coordinated effort required to build the pyramid, which measured 43 feet high and about 130 feet wide, was “crucial to reestablishing … social and political order in the region.” A team of 100 people working four months a year would have taken a minimum of 13 years to complete the project, while a group of 1,500 workers would only need about 11 months.
Environmental disasters like volcanoes have long been linked to the collapse of ancient civilizations. Through Live Science, powerful explosions may have contributed to the demise of Ptolemaic Egypt in the first century BC; Around the same time, in 43 BCE, an eruption in Alaska triggered extreme weather conditions that helped undermine the Roman Republic.
Researching past disasters like the TBJ eruption may offer lessons for similar cataclysmic events in the future.
âDisaster studies help us deal with disasters to come,â said Mark Elson, an anthropologist at the University of Arizona who was not involved in the new study. National Geographic. âThings are not going to get better.