Around 1,500 years ago, a powerful volcanic eruption devastated present-day El Salvador and sent the Maya civilization into a temporary phase of decline. New research suggests that shortly afterwards the Maya built a monumental pyramid near the volcano. in response to the natural disaster.
The eruption of Tierra Blanca Joven is the most significant volcanic event in Central America in the past 10,000 years and one of the most powerful eruptions on Earth in the past 7,000 years. The best current guess is that the Ilopango Caldera has blown around AD 539 and devastated the surrounding areas, including the Mayan settlements nearby. White volcanic ash, known as tephra, was waist-deep up to 35 kilometers from the volcanic vent and up to 10 meters thick in some places.
“Imagine – it looked like snow covering the tropical world,” Akira Ichikawa, sole author of the new article and an archaeologist at the University of Colorado Boulder, wrote to me in an email. “It would have been fatal for the plants and animals that live near the chimney.”
TThe eruption was a local disaster, but it also caused a temporary cooling of the climate throughout the northern hemisphere. Many Maya communities around the volcano had to be abandoned, resulting in a historical period known as the “Maya Hiatus”.
Research published today in the journal Antiquity re-examines this catastrophic event to better understand how it affected the southeastern Maya and how long it took them to recover. There are debates on the subject, with one school of thought believing that it took the Maya centuries to recover while others speculate about a quick comeback. The lack of consensus has to do with the lack of archaeological evidence, like Ichikawa in his to learn:
Attempts to associate abrupt environmental changes with social decline or 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 society in terms of just the magnitude of such dangerous events. So to understand the effects of the [Tierra Blanca Joven] Outbreak on local communities requires more archaeological data with a clear chronological context related to the event.
To this end, Ichikawa examined the Mayan site of San Andrés in the Zapotitán Valley, a former settlement 40 km west of the volcano. From 2015 to 2019 he was conducted excavations and related radiocarbon dating to analyze the initial construction stages of several structures, including a monumental pyramid known as the Campana structure.
The pyramid erected on a platform was the largest structure in the Zapotitán Valley at that time. With a total volume of 43,160 cubic meters (33,000 cubic meters), the pyramid was 13 meters high and elongated some 40 meters wide.
Ichikawa’s work showed 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 it. Not only did the Maya return to San Andrés relatively quickly, they also decided to build a gigantic pyramid. This is evidence of the Maya’s rapid recovery after the disaster.
Additionally, Ichikawa believes that “Survivors and / or resettlers in the Zapotitán Valley may have moved the monumental public building in San Andrés in response to the massive… The pyramid may have served a religious purpose and may have been perceived as some kind of protection from the volcano, he said.
As Ichikawa points out in the publication, the Campana structure was built from a combination of volcanic tephra and earth fill. Incredibly, therefore, a large part of the pyramid was built from the volcano itself. This makes sense from a practical point of view, Because tephra is an effective building material, the “white ash expelled by the eruption may have had strong religious or cosmological significance,” according to the paper. Many, in fact Mesoamerican people regarded mountains and volcanoes as sacred places. For Ichikawa, the significant use of volcanic ash is key to his hypothesis.
“Monumental structures or pyramids were seen as metaphors for sacred mountains,” he wrote in his email, adding that these places are connected to the origin of creation, as habitat for deities and as a connection to heaven and the underworld. It is possible, he said, that some People perceived the eruption as a sign of the “angry earth” and that they were building an important monumental structure out of volcanic ash may have found a solution to calm this anger.
But as Ichikawa also argues, the major project also helped restore social and political order in the Zapotitán Valley. It would be a huge one Teamwork (estimates range from 500 to 1,500 people), which required collaboration and social inclusion, and likely brought together survivors of the outbreak and newcomers to the area.
In addition, the emergency construction project could have restored the political power of the rulers after the disaster. However, Ichikawa does not believe that coercion was involved in the construction as there was no high hierarchical society at the time. The project may have started as a collaborative and collaborative effort, but some guides may have emerged during the construction process, Ichikawa explained. Interestingly, San Andrés was supposed to become the main center of the valley.
Ichikawa speculates that former San Andrés residents came back to rebuild the settlement or that immigrants from a completely new culture, possibly from Honduras, have relocated to the area. Or maybe a little of both.
The new paper is fascinating, and Ichikawa may be right about the quick recovery and building of the pyramid in response to the eruption, but more evidence is needed. He admits this in the paper, saying that “more research is needed in other volcanic event locations,” along with future research into how the survivors obtained their food and where the San Andrés resettlers actually came from. Regardless, the new research helps us understand how some person Societies recovered from sudden and catastrophic environmental changes.
More: These early humans thrived during a devastating volcanic winter.
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