The Maya people were annihilated when the Ilopango volcano erupted in 431 AD, 1590 years ago, archaeologists have announced. This volcanic eruption is now known to have destroyed everything within a 25 mile (40km) radius, according to the landmark new study.
Archaeologists were already aware a major volcanic eruption occurred in the area.
The explosion would have killed every living thing within 40 km
Professor Victoria Smith
However, the exact date and nature of this eruption was until now unknown.
The archaeological team achieved their findings after analysing an ice core recovered from Greenland.
In addition, they took radiocarbon measurements from a charred tree found in the nearby ash deposits.
Taken in tandem, the researchers were able to accurately date the epic eruption to within two years, in 431 AD.
A cutting-edge three-dimensional tephra dispersal model was used to establish the resulting eruption plume rose to 28 miles (45km) high.
This is believed to have dispersed Ilopango’s ash more than 4350 miles (7,000km) – as far away as Greenland.
Dario Pedrazzi, researcher at Geosciences Barcelona–CSIC, said in a statement: “This work follows previous studies that were published in 2019 and in which we described, thanks to an extensive analysis of the ash deposits in El Salvador, the main physical parameters of this violent eruption that reached its climax with a series of pyroclastic flows linked a caldera collapse.
“A great part of this research has been possible thanks to all the data acquired during three field campaigns carried out in El Salvador during which we conducted a detailed mapping of the ash deposits present in an area of 200,000 km2.”
Approximately 35 cubic miles (55km3) of magma erupted from Ilopango.
Victoria Smith, associate professor from the University of Oxford and lead author of the research, said: ”More than 2 million km2 of Central America was covered with at least a half centimetre of ash, and it would have been dark over this region for at least a week.
“The Ilopango Eruption was more than 50 times bigger than that of [1980s] Mount Saint Helens.
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”The pyroclastic flows from the eruption of Ilopango were 10 times the volume of those from Vesuvius, which erupted in 79 CE, preserving the Roman city of Pompeii in ash.”
The explosion took place during the Maya Early Classic Period.
This period stretched from 300 to 600 AD, as the civilisation spread across Central America.
However, Professor Smith said: “The explosion would have killed every living thing within 40 km and there would have been no inhabitants for many years or decades in the vicinity.”
But this volcanic eruption did not, surprisingly, have a significant impact on the Maya people elsewhere.
Ilopango was thought to have been responsible for the uncharacteristically cold ten years in the Northern Hemisphere, approximately 540 AD.
But this latest research suggests this date is at odds with archaeological evidence, such as the production of pottery.
This implies a date near the start of the Early Classic period.
The Ilopango Caldera is located less than 6 miles (10km) from El Salvador’s capital San Salvador City.
It is a part of the Volcanic Arc of El Salvador, including a total of 21 active volcanoes, being one of the most active segments of the Central America Volcanic Arc.
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