Huge Maya pyramid in El Salvador was built just 5-30 years after an enormous volcanic eruption 1,482 years ago as a ‘guard against future eruptions’, study finds 

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  • Tierra Blanca Joven was the largest eruption in Central America in 10,000 years
  • It devastated the local area, covering it in volcanic deposits about 1.6 feet thick
  • It was thought that the area was abandoned for some time due to the disaster.
  • Yet a University of Colorado Boulder expert found evidence to dispute this
  • The Campana Pyramid in San Andres was soon built from volcanic rock

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A Maya pyramid in what is today El Salvador was built in the wake of a massive, climate-cooled volcanic eruption to ‘protect against future eruptions’, a study finds.

The AD 539 ‘Tierra Blanca Joven’ eruption of the Ilopango volcano – today a crater lake – was the largest in Central America in the last 10,000 years.

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It is thought that it released about 20 cubic miles of volcanic material, or ‘tephra’, into the air, moving the surrounding area into a deposit about 1.6 feet thick.

University of Colorado Boulder archaeologist Akira Ichikawa studied the Campana pyramid at San Andres in the Zapotitan Valley, 25 miles from Ilopango.

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Their analysis showed that the structure was formed out of tephra by eruption 5–30 years after the catastrophic event – ​​and was completed within 80 years.

Time suggests that the pyramids were built in response to volcanism – which, like the mountains, Dr. Ichikawa noted, were sacred in the Mesoamerican worldview.

A Maya pyramid in what is today El Salvador was built in the wake of a massive, climate-cooled volcanic eruption to ‘protect against future eruptions’, a study finds. Image: Campana pyramids at the San Andres site in the Zapotitan Valley, with the San Salvador volcanic complex – behind which is Lake Ilopango – shown in the background

The Elopango volcano's AD 539 'Tierra Blanca Joven' eruption of a crater lake, pictured today, was the largest in Central America in the past 10,000 years.  It is thought to have released about 20 cubic miles of volcanic material, or 'tephra', into the air, moving the surrounding area into a deposit about 1.6 feet thick.

The AD 539 ‘Tierra Blanca Joven’ eruption of the Ilopango volcano – today a crater lake, pictured – was the largest in Central America in the last 10,000 years. It is thought that it released about 20 cubic miles of volcanic material, or ‘tephra’, into the air, moving the surrounding area into a deposit about 1.6 feet thick.

Archaeologist Akira Ichikawa of the University of Colorado Boulder studied the Campana pyramid (pictured) in San Andrés in the Zapotitan Valley, 25 miles from Ilopango.

Archaeologist Akira Ichikawa of the University of Colorado Boulder studied the Campana pyramid (pictured) in San Andrés in the Zapotitan Valley, 25 miles from Ilopango.

Dr Ichikawa's analysis showed that the structure was formed out of tephra by an eruption 5–30 years after the catastrophic event and was completed within 80 years.  Image: Excavations reveal the main staircase of the pyramid (left) and how the pyramid's stone structure was built on deposits from the Tierra Blanca Joven eruption (center and right)

Dr Ichikawa’s analysis showed that the structure was formed out of tephra by an eruption 5–30 years after the catastrophic event – ​​and was completed within 80 years. Image: Excavations reveal the main staircase of the pyramid (left) and how the pyramid’s stone structure was built on deposits from the Tierra Blanca Joven eruption (center and right)

Ilopango Volcano

The AD 539 ‘Tierra Blanca Joven’ eruption of the Ilopango volcano – today a crater lake – was the largest in Central America in the last 10,000 years.

This released about 20 cubic miles of volcanic material, or ‘tephra’, into the air, moving the surrounding area into a deposit about 1.6 feet thick.

Lake Ilopango has erupted since then – most recently in 1879-80.

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‘Cause of catastrophic magnitude’ [Tierra Blanca Joven] After the eruption, scholars have assumed that many sites were abandoned and it took a long time to recapture the affected areas,’ Dr Ichikawa explained.

However, he explained, the timing and sheer scale of the Campana pyramid’s contraction indicate that people quickly returned to occupy the San Andrés site, turning it into a center of occupation in the surrounding valley.

The Campana structure has a pyramidal shape – about 43 feet (13 m) in height – above a 23 feet (7 m) tall platform.

The total structure had a volume of approximately 1,165,384 cubic feet (33,000 cubic metres), making it the largest structure in the valley at the time it was built.

In addition to its possible religious ceremony, Dr. Ichikawa believes that the construction of the Campana pyramid may have served a social function as well.

Significant construction efforts may have helped bring together both volcano survivors and newcomers to the area.

Simultaneously, the monumental effort may have helped the Maya rulers who began construction to consolidate their position and power, which had been well challenged by the preceding volcanic disaster.

This hypothesis may also account for why a similar expansion of formation occurred around AD 620 – in the wake of a second volcanic eruption from the Loma caldera, only 3.7 miles (6 kilometers) north of San Andrés.

According to Dr. Ichikawa, the smaller but arguably more elaborate Acropolis structure in San Andres was probably formed after the Loma caldera eruption.

The time of construction suggests that the pyramid was built in response to volcanoes - which, like the mountains, were sacred in the Mesoamerican worldview.  Image: Excavations have shown the structure was built on top of the Tierra Blanca Joven deposit

The time of construction suggests that the pyramid was built in response to volcanoes—which, like the mountains, were sacred in the Mesoamerican worldview. Image: Excavations have shown the structure was built on top of the Tierra Blanca Joven deposit

The Campana structure has a pyramidal shape approximately 43 feet (13 m) in height and is built on top of a 23 feet (7 m) high platform.  The total structure had a volume of approximately 1,165,384 cubic feet (33,000 cubic metres), making it the largest structure in the valley at the time it was built.  Image: A 3D model of the Campana pyramid, showing the location of the excavation

The Campana structure has a pyramidal shape – about 43 feet (13 m) in height – above a 23 feet (7 m) tall platform. The total structure had a volume of approximately 1,165,384 cubic feet (33,000 cubic metres), making it the largest structure in the valley at the time it was built. Image: A 3D model of the Campana pyramid, showing the location of the excavation

Dr Ichikawa commented, ‘Sudden environmental change is one of the problems facing modern society.

‘Sites like San Andres can teach us about human creativity, innovation, adaptation, resilience and vulnerability in the face of such events.’

The full findings of the study were published in the journal ancient time.

While the AD 539 Tierra Blanca Joven eruption was Ilopango's most dramatic, the most recent since Volcano occurred in 1879–80, as depicted in this engraving from 1891.

While the AD 539 Tierra Blanca Joven eruption was Ilopango’s most dramatic eruption, the volcano has since erupted—most recently in 1879–80, as depicted in this engraving from 1891.

Along with its possible religious ceremony, Dr. Ichikawa believes that the construction of the Campana Pyramid may have served a social function as well – with an effort to bring the survivors of the volcano and the newcomers closer together.  Simultaneously, the monumental effort may have helped the Maya rulers who began construction to consolidate their position and power, which had been well challenged by the preceding volcanic disaster.  Image: a topographic map of San Andres, showing the Campanas (top) and the Acropolis (bottom)

Along with its possible religious ceremony, Dr. Ichikawa believes that the construction of the Campana Pyramid may have served a social function as well…

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