Around 1,500 years ago, a powerful volcanic eruption laid waste to what is now El Salvador, sending the Maya civilization into a temporary period of decline. New research suggests a monumental pyramid located near the volcano was built by the Maya shortly afterward, as a response to the natural disaster.
The Tierra Blanca Joven eruption is the most significant Central American volcanic event of the past 10,000 years and one of the strongest eruptions on Earth to have happened within the last 7,000 years. The best current guess is that the Ilopango Caldera blew up around 539 CE, laying waste to the surrounding areas, including Maya settlements nearby. White volcanic ash, known as tephra, was waist-high as far as 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 paper’s sole author and an archaeologist at the University of Colorado Boulder, wrote to me in an email. “Thus, it would’ve been fatal for plants and animals living near the vent.”
The eruption was a local disaster, but it also caused a temporary cooling of the climate across the entire 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 scientific journal Antiquity revisits this cataclysmic event to better understand how it affected the southeastern Maya and how long it took them to recover. There’s debate on the matter, with one school of thought believing it took the Maya centuries to recover, while others speculate about a quick comeback. The lack of consensus has to do with the dearth of archaeological evidence, as Ichikawa wrote in his study:
Attempts to correlate abrupt environmental change with social decline or development are complicated by several factors, including population size, social complexity and economic and political inequalities. Furthermore, it can be difficult to measure the impact of these disasters on human societies based only on the magnitude of such hazardous events. Thus, to assess the impact of the [Tierra Blanca Joven] eruption on local communities, more archaeological data with clear chronological context in relation to the event are required.
To that end, Ichikawa investigated the Maya site of San Andrés in the Zapotitán Valley, a former settlement located 25 miles (40 km) west of the volcano. From 2015 to 2019, he conducted excavations and associated radiocarbon dating to analyze the initial construction phases of several structures, including a monumental pyramid known as the Campana structure.
The pyramid, built atop 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) tall and stretched some 130 feet (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. So not only did the Maya return to San Andrés fairly quickly, they also decided to build a gigantic pyramid. That, he argues, is evidence of a quick Maya rebound following the disaster.
Moreover, Ichikawa believes that “survivors and/or re-settlers in the Zapotitán Valley may have constructed the monumental public building at San Andrés in response to the massive…eruption,” as he writes in the study. The pyramid may have served a religious purpose and was possibly perceived as a kind of protection against the volcano, he said.
As Ichikawa details in the paper, the Campana structure was built from a combination of volcanic tephra and earth fill. Incredibly, a good portion of the pyramid, therefore, was built from the volcano itself. This makes sense from a practical perspective, as 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 paper. Indeed, many Mesoamerican people viewed mountains and volcanoes as sacred places. For Ichikawa, the significant use of volcanic ash is key to his hypothesis.
“Monumental structures or pyramids were considered metaphors for sacred mountains,” he wrote in his email, adding that these places were connected to the origin of creation, deemed living spaces for deities, and a conduit to the sky and underworld. It’s possible, he said, that some people perceived the eruption as a sign of “angry Earth,” and that, by building an important monumental structure from volcanic ash, they may have stumbled upon a solution for calming this anger.
But as Ichikawa also argues, the large-scale project also helped to reestablish social and political order in the Zapotitán Valley. It would’ve been a huge community effort (estimates place the labor force at between 500 and 1,500 people), requiring cooperation and social integration, and it likely brought together survivors of the eruption and newcomers to the region.
What’s more, the make-work construction project could’ve re-established the political power of the rulers in the wake of the disaster. That said, Ichikawa doesn’t believe coercion was involved during the construction, as a highly hierarchical society didn’t exist at the time. The project may have started as a communal and collaborative effort, but some leaders may have emerged during the process of construction, Ichikawa explained. Interestingly, San Andrés would go on to become the valley’s primary center.
Ichikawa speculates that former inhabitants of San Andrés came back to rebuild the settlement or that immigrants from an entirely new culture, possibly from Honduras, re-settled the area. Or possibly a bit of both.
The new paper is fascinating, and Ichikawa may be correct about the quick recovery and how the pyramid was built as a response to the eruption, but more evidence is needed. He admits as much in the paper, saying “further investigation is required of more sites affected by volcanic events,” along with future research into the ways in which the survivors procured their food and where the resettlers of San Andrés actually came from. Regardless, the new research is helping us to understand how some human societies bounced back from sudden and calamitous environmental change.