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Pictogram in the Aztec Codex Telleriano Remensi representing an earthquake that took place in 1507. Source: Gerardo Suárez and Virginia García-Acosta

Aztec Codex is Oldest Written Account of Earthquakes in the Americas

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Between the 1300s and the devastating arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in the early 1500s, the Aztecs were a flourishing Mesoamerican culture in the Valley of Mexico in Central Mexico, building one of the largest and most powerful empires in the Pre-Columbian Americas. The Aztecs were a highly knowledgeable and skilled people who were responsible for remarkable engineering achievements, along with a number system, a calendar, great knowledge of medicine, and a rich tradition in poetry, amongst other things. Adding to this list of proficiencies, scientists have now discovered a 500-year-old Aztec codex that depicts the first “written” evidence of earthquakes in the Americas!

An Aztec Codex Revealing Pictograms and Symbols of Past Quakes

The 16th century manuscript, titled the Codex Telleriano Remensis , depicts earthquakes in pictograms, according to a study published in the online journal Seismological Research Letters . Gerardo Suárez of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and Virginia García-Acosta of the Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social (Center for Research and Higher Studies in Social Anthropology) studied pictograms reporting 12 earthquakes in the Telleriano-Remensis, occurring between 1460 and 1542. The researchers said, “We recently embarked on a more detailed study of this pictographic representation and other texts written immediately after the Spanish conquest,” as reported by Seismological Society of America .

Codex representation of an earthquake that took place in the year 7 Knives or 1460. Below, the ollin glyph is embedded in the Earth represented as two layers. (Gerardo Suárez and Virginia García-Acosta)

Codex representation of an earthquake that took place in the year 7 Knives or 1460. Below, the ollin glyph is embedded in the Earth represented as two layers. ( Gerardo Suárez and Virginia García-Acosta )

The symbols representing the pictographs help us understand specific references to solar eclipses or days, along with a commentary in Spanish, and even sometimes Italian by later commentators. The literal translation of Codex Telleriano Remensis , is, rather poetically, ‘those who write paintings’, and it was created by trained specialists who were called tlacuilos, who had mastered the art of the codex. Unfortunately, a ton of codices were lost to Spanish imperialism, as they were suspected to be of pagan origin, and hence burnt and lost irretrievably.

Suarez says , “The consensus is that the various representations probably do have a meaning. Drawing codices was a strict discipline not open to artistic whims of the people trained to do it, the tlacuilos. We are hopeful that in the future an unknown codex or document may appear that may enlighten us in this respect.”

The limitations of the pictograms are that they offer little in terms of size, location and damage of each quake, but it is possible to date each quake by juxtaposing it with the event – for example, there is a solar eclipse in 1507 that hit the same time as a devastating earthquake the same year. Daily Mail reports that a temple was destroyed during that year, and close to 1,800 warriors died in an area in southern Mexico.

Page 42r of the Aztec Codex Telleriano Remensi. It depicts an earthquake that took place in 1507. (FAMSI)

Page 42r of the Aztec Codex Telleriano Remensi. It depicts an earthquake that took place in 1507 . ( FAMSI)

The Aztecs and the Cyclical Nature of Natural Disasters

“It is not surprising that pre-Hispanic records exist describing earthquakes for two reasons. Earthquakes are frequent in this country and, secondly, earthquakes had a profound meaning in the cosmological view of the original inhabitants of what is now Mexico,” Suarez says and adds that the historical evidence “really does not change our view of the seismic potential of that region in southern Mexico. It simply adds additional evidence that great earthquakes have occurred in this segment of the subduction zone before, and the absence of these major earthquakes for several years should not be considered as though this region is aseismic.”

This is in reference to Mesoamerican civilizations and their spiritual beliefs and inclinations that caused them to view the universe and its patterns as cyclical. They believed that successive eras or ‘suns’ would be destroyed by floods, wind, fire, and other natural disasters, before the birth of a ‘new sun’.

Currently, there is a fifth sun in the cycle of the universe, which will be ended by a series of massive earthquakes, as a result of the intervention of Tepeyollotl – the god of darkened caves, earthquakes, echoes, and jaguars. Earthquakes, called tlalollin in the Nahuatl language, are represented by two signs: ollin (movement) and tlalli (earth).

The god Tepeyollotl, from the Aztec Codex Telleriano-Remensis (16th century). (Public Domain)

The god Tepeyollotl, from the Aztec Codex Telleriano-Remensis (16th century). ( Public Domain )

The two researchers have been studying earthquakes since the massive 8.0 magnitude on the Richter scale earthquake hit Mexico City in 1985, devastating everything in its wake. They believe that a great understanding and look into the spiritual moorings and predictions of the indigenous peoples, like the Aztecs, is bound to shed more light on the possible disaster-prone tendencies of certain areas in Mexico.

Top Image: Pictogram i n the Aztec Codex Telleriano Remensi representing an earthquake that took place in 1507 . Source: Gerardo Suárez and Virginia García-Acosta

By Sahir Pandey

References

Bressan, D. 2021. A 500-Year-Old Aztec Manuscript Is The Oldest Written Record Of Earthquakes In The Americas . Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/davidbressan/2021/08/26/a-500-year-old-aztec-manuscript-is-the-oldest-written-record-of-earthquakes-in-the-americas/?sh=2902158d67b2.

Liberatore, S. 2021. Aztec manuscript dating back 500 years details 12 earthquakes from the 15th and 16 centuries and is the first written evidence of seismic activity in the Americas. Available at: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-9929625/500-year-old-Aztec-manuscript-written-evidence-earthquakes-Americas.html.

Seismosoc. 2021. Pictograms Are First Written Accounts of Earthquakes in Pre-Hispanic Mexico . Available at: https://www.seismosoc.org/news/pictograms-are-first-written-earthquake-accounts-in-pre-hispanic-mexico/.

Suarez, G., Garcia-Acosta, V. 2021. The First Written Accounts of Pre-Hispanic Earthquakes in the Americas . Seismological Research Letters. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1785/0220210161.

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