The Maya Built This Monumental Pyramid Out of Volcanic Rock

New research cites the colossal construction as evidence of the civilization’s rapid recovery from a devastating eruption

View of the Campana structure
Construction of the pyramid, which stood 43 feet tall and roughly 130 feet wide, began within 5 to 30 years of the Tierra Blanca Joven eruption. Akira Ichikawa / Antiquity Publications Ltd.

Around the fifth or sixth century C.E., the Tierra Blanca Joven (TBJ) volcanic eruption caused mass devastation in El Salvador. Scholars are divided on how the region’s Maya inhabitants responded to the natural disaster, but a new study suggests they proved surprisingly resilient, using rock spewed by the volcano to construct a monumental pyramid within decades of the eruption.

As George Dvorsky reports for Gizmodo, Akira Ichikawa, an archaeologist at the University of Colorado Boulder, drew on excavations and radiocarbon dating to assess the so-called Campana structure, which once towered over San Andrés in El Salvador’s Zapotitán Valley. His findings, published in the journal Antiquity, indicate that the Maya began building the pyramid out of tephra, or white volcanic ash, and earth fill within 5 to 30 years of the eruption. At most, construction began 80 years after the eruption.

“Events like eruptions and drought have often been considered a main factor in ancient collapse, abandonment or decline,” Ichikawa tells National Geographics Erin Blakemore. “My research suggests ancient people were more resilient, flexible and innovative.”

Last October, a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences posited that the TBJ eruption took place in 431 C.E., blanketing the region in thick volcanic ash and rendering land within 50 miles uninhabitable for years or even decades. Central America’s largest volcanic event in 10,000 years, the Ilopango caldera’s eruption also triggered temporary cooling across the Northern Hemisphere, notes Mindy Weisberger for Live Science.

The Maya Built This Monumental Pyramid Out of Volcanic Rock
Workers may have chosen tetra as a building material in hopes of preventing future eruptions. Akira Ichikawa / Antiquity Publications Ltd.

Ichikawa’s analysis outlines a slightly different scenario, dating the disaster to around 539 C.E. and suggesting that the Maya returned to the region sooner than previously believed. Debate over the timing of the eruption, as well as its long-term effects on the Maya people, is ongoing.

Workers’ choice of tephra as a building material may have held religious or cosmological significance, writes Ichikawa in the study.

“Monumental structures or pyramids were considered metaphors for sacred mountains,” he tells Gizmodo.

Speaking with National Geographic, the archaeologist adds, “[The Maya] may have believed that dedicating a monumental structure to the volcano was a logical and rational way to resolve the problem of possible future eruptions.”

According to Ruth Schuster of Haaretz, Ichikawa argues that the coordinated effort required to build the pyramid, which stood 43 feet tall and roughly 130 feet wide, was “crucial to reestablishing ... social and political order in the region.” A team of 100 working four months per year would’ve taken a minimum of 13 years to complete the project, while a group of 1,500 workers would’ve needed just 11 months or so.

Environmental disasters like volcanoes have long been linked to the collapse of ancient civilizations. Per Live Science, potent blasts may have contributed to the demise of Ptolemaic Egypt in the first century B.C.E.; around the same time, in 43 B.C.E., an eruption in Alaska sparked extreme weather that helped undermine the Roman Republic.

Researching ancient catastrophes like the TBJ eruption may offer lessons for similarly cataclysmic events in the future.

“Disaster studies help us cope with upcoming disasters,” Mark Elson, an anthropologist at the University of Arizona who was not involved in the new study, tells National Geographic. “Things aren’t going to get better.”