Volcanic eruptions are indubitably the greatest shows on Earth – firework displays once said to be ancient gods forging weapons, or even gateways to the underworld. It’s not surprising then that they have been revered and feared in equal measure for millennia. There are even cave paintings dating back as far as 36,000 years that feature depictions of fire fountains.
A new study in the journal Antiquity only serves to add to this resplendent history. It explains that not only is there a temple, hiding within coastal Peru, that is shaped like a volcano – crater and all – but it appears that it was also used to simulate volcanic eruptions too.
Found in the Nepeña Valley, the 15.5 meters (50 feet) tall edifice was first discovered by researchers in the 1960s. From above, it looks exactly like a small type of parasitic volcano named a scoria cone.
Led by Robert Benfer, a professor emeritus of biological anthropology at the University of Missouri, a team of archaeologists went to what is known as El Volcán to take a closer look. After all, it’s unlikely that this monument was built by human hands then left alone over the years – similarly sized structures elsewhere were used for astronomical purposes.
Digging a trench into the crater of the volcanic temple revealed that it contained a secret staircase that had since collapsed, one that led to a chamber of some sort. At the bottom of the stairwell lay fragments of charred wood, charcoal, and shell, which seemed to suggest that rather large fires were set down here.
Using radiocarbon dating, the team found that fires were lit anywhere between the year 1492 and 1602. The team also note that there were four total solar eclipses happening at the time – in 1521, 1538, 1539 and 1543 – and that this was likely no coincidence.
“The inhabitants of the area would have had no previous experience with such a cluster [of eclipses],” the team noted in their study.
“Their appearances in so short a period would have required celebration,” they add, explaining that “the people of the northern and central coasts, the Yungas, unlike the later Incas, greeted eclipse of the sun with joy, not fear.
“Possibly the El Volcán hearth was a place celebrating the victory of the moon (and the sea) over the sun (and the land).”
Although it’s not entirely clear, archaeologists think that this pyramid is likely to have been made during the Late Formative (or Early Horizon) period, from 900 BCE to 200 BCE.
At this time, large-scale ceremonial architectures appeared, as did the archetypes of cities. Writing began to spread around the region, as did the prevalence of human sacrifice and the worship of many gods.
This means that the fires set inside the pyramid were likely set by one of the last great cultures present in the region during the Late Horizon, thousands of years after El Volcán was originally built. As for who exactly started those conflagrations, no one knows for sure.
Perhaps most mysteriously, despite the fact that it is almost indistinguishable from a scoria cone, there aren’t any volcanoes like it in the region. There are scoria cones elsewhere in Peru, but they’re incredibly far from El Volcán – so where did its original builders get the inspiration from?
Right now, there are more questions than answers, and it’s likely that much of this pyramid will remain, as the authors put it, a “conundrum.”
One thing’s for sure, though – we are still as awed by volcanic eruptions today as we were thousands of years ago, something that shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s seen one with their very own eyes.