"Tepeiollotl will destroy our world": what the Aztecs wrote about earthquakes

"Tepeiollotl will destroy our world": what the Aztecs wrote about earthquakes
"Tepeiollotl will destroy our world": what the Aztecs wrote about earthquakes

Mexican seismologists have found the oldest written evidence of earthquakes in the Americas in an Aztec manuscript 500 years ago. The Telleriano-Remensis Codex describes 12 cataclysms that occurred in the 15th-16th centuries.

The Aztecs believed that the present world would be destroyed by earthquakes.

A 500-year-old Aztec manuscript found in Mexico was the first written record of earthquakes in pre-Columbian America. Gerardo Suarez of the National Autonomous University of Mexico and Virginia García-Acosta of the Mexican Center for Research and Higher Education in Social Anthropology examined pictograms that reported 12 earthquakes that occurred between 1460 and 1542. An article about this was published in the journal Seismology Research Letter.

The first written evidence of earthquakes in America is represented by pictograms in codices and annals drawn up in the early years after the Spanish conquest. The main source of information about earthquakes in pre-Hispanic times was the so-called Telleriano-Remensis Code, created in 1562-1563 in Mexico City and written on European paper. It is one of the best preserved manuscripts among all Aztec manuscript codes. Its name comes from the Latinized name for Charles-Maurice Le Tellier, the bishop of Rheims who owned this manuscript at the end of the 17th century. The Codex is a solar and lunar calendar that displays historical events - the ascension and death of rulers, battles, earthquakes and solar eclipses - in the form of pictograms, small drawings.

The Telleriano-Remensis Codex speaks of 12 earthquakes that occurred in the 15th – 16th centuries. The pictograms contain little information about the epicenters of specific earthquakes, their extent or the destruction caused by them, however, thanks to the symbols related to specific solar eclipses or other memorable days, as well as later explanations left by commentators in Latin, Spanish and sometimes Italian next to the symbols, these events can be successfully dated.

So, one of the pictograms denotes an earthquake that occurred in 1507. This event is associated with a solar eclipse, and as a result of the earthquake the temple was destroyed and 1,800 soldiers died in an unidentified river located presumably in the south of Mexico. That is, we are talking not only about tremors, but also, probably, about landslides caused by them. All this can be attributed to the places near the fault in the Mexican state of Guerrero, in the region occupied by the Jope culture - her remains were found by archaeologists near the city of Pico del Monte. The earthquake, apparently, was a very powerful and unusual cataclysm for this part of the subduction zone - the zone of subsidence of some blocks of the earth's crust under others at the boundary of lithospheric plates. No other equally large earthquakes have been recorded there for at least the last 120 years. And such a strong earthquake with a magnitude of more than 8.0 could be the earthquake of 1496.

Despite the fact that there is not enough information about the destruction or indications of the exact place where the tremors were felt, the messages in this code still allow linking the dates of earthquakes and other natural phenomena with social upheavals, providing scientists with the first written chronology of earthquakes in the North and South America. However, there are other reports, written after the Spanish conquest of Mexico in 1521, which describe political and social events that occurred before the fall of the Aztec empire. Some of these chronicles contain ample information about the places affected by earthquakes and the damage they caused. For example, the historical account of the Franciscan monk Juan de Torquemada just describes the earthquake of 1496, which shook three mountains in the "province of Sochitepec, along the coast" and caused landslides in the area inhabited by the people of Jope.

“There are two factors for the existence of pre-Hispanic earthquake manuscripts,” Suarez says. "Earthquakes in this area happened quite often, and besides, the indigenous people of today's Mexico attached great importance to them due to their cosmology."


Gerardo Suarez of the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico and Virginia Garcia-Acosta of the Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropologia Social

All Mesoamerican civilizations believed in the cyclical nature of time, considering the existence of the Universe as a series of epochs that lasted almost 5200 years, which in turn were divided into 13 segments - baktuns. The previous cycle was supposed to end on December 21 (or 23), 2012, with which certain apocalyptic expectations were associated. According to this point of view, the present world will be destroyed by unprecedented earthquakes. Aztec mythology featured the god of death, dark caves, earthquakes, echoes and jaguars, called Tepeiollotl ("Heart of the Mountains"). It is through his fault that earthquakes occur, and also the mountain echo spreads far away. Tepeyollotl was depicted as a jaguar, whose spotted skin also symbolized the starry sky.

Earthquakes, called tlal ollin or nahui ollin in Nahuatl, are represented by two symbols used in pictograms: ollin (movement) and tlalli (earth). Ollin is a glyph made up of four spirals (representing the four cardinal points of the earth) and a central eye or circle. Tlally is a glyph made up of one or more layers filled with dots and different colors (representing gems). There are other modifications of earthquake glyphs in the Telleriano-Remensis codex, but their meanings are still not clear to scientists.

“Historical evidence does not change our view of the seismic potential of this region in southern Mexico,” explained Suarez. "It just gives us additional evidence that strong earthquakes have actually happened in this segment of the subduction zone, and the absence of such earthquakes in recent years does not give us the right to consider this region as seismically inactive."

Suarez and García-Acosta began studying historical earthquakes in Mexico after the devastating magnitude 8.0 earthquake in Mexico City in 1985 and eventually published their findings in Los sismos en la Historia de México. “However, we have not studied pictographic images of earthquakes before,” Suarez admits. “We have recently begun a more detailed study of this pictographic heritage and other texts written immediately after the Spanish conquest.” Drawing codes was a strict discipline, there was no room for random artistic liberties, and the people who kept the records were specially trained in this skill. Although many priceless codices were burned as pagan cult objects with the arrival of the Spaniards, some of them survived, and the pictographic style was used in new codices until the 18th century.

The researchers plan to study other codes, which are not as well known as Telleriano-Remensis, but still cannot access the libraries where they are stored due to restrictions related to COVID-19.

Popular by topic