Volcanic eruption influenced Maya construction

In AD 539 a huge volcanic eruption occurred near the Maya site of San Andrés, El Salvador. The Tierra Blanca Joven (TBJ) was the largest eruption in Central America in the last 10,000 years, it impacted the climate across the Maya world and resulted in the abandonment of many of the affected areas.

It was previously believed that people did not return to these areas for some time after the eruption, but new research published in Antiquity shows that the site of San Andrés, situated just 40km from the volcano, was reoccupied within 5-30 years of the eruption. What’s more, the site’s occupants quickly began construction on a monumental structure built using volcanic tephra from the eruption. The Campana structure, which consisted of a large pyramid on a platform, would have been the biggest structure in the Zapotitán Valley at the time, standing at least 7m tall, with a volume of 23,000m2.

It is believed that the pyramid’s creation was connected to the TBJ eruption as volcanoes and mountains were sacred to the Maya. The structure may have served some kind of religious function, perhaps it was even intended to guard against future eruptions. Researchers also point out that the communal effort involved in a building project of this scale may have had social benefits, bringing together the returning survivors and/or new immigrants living at San Andrés, as well as reinforcing the power of the rulers who coordinated such a monumental task, counteracting any possible instability caused by the disaster.

New research suggests that the Campana structure was built in response to the Tierra Blanca Joven eruption.
Credit: A. Ichikawa, Antiquity 2021