Thousand-Year-Old Model Of The Universe Discovered In Shadow Of Mexican Volcano


Robin Andrews

Science & Policy Writer

Estanque de Nahualac. Foto: Isaac Gómez, cortesía Proyecto Arqueológico Nahualac, SAS-INAH.

Volcanology and archaeology don’t always combine, but when they do, the results are spectacular. Remember that volcano-like temple built in Peru that was probably designed with eclipses in mind? How about those 19,000-year-old footprints preserved in volcanic ash over in Tanzania?

Now we head to Mexico, where outlets have reported that a volcano just east of the capital has something rather curious sitting next to it: a model of the universe dating back perhaps a millennium or so. The source of the reports appear to be the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), whose explorations near the volcano of Iztaccihuatl led to the discovery of the stone-based microcosm of the cosmos.


First, let’s take a look at Iztaccihutal, whose name, according to the Smithsonian Institution’s Global Volcanism Program, means the “Woman in White”, apparently because the volcano’s profile from the Valley of Mexico looks like a snoozing lady. It’s 5,230 meters (17,154 feet) high, and a stratovolcano, with an extremely quiet recent history, geologically speaking.


Isaac Go?mez, cortesi?a Proyecto Arqueolo?gico Nahualac, SAS-INAH

It’s an impressive site, and one that clearly had an impact on the Mesoamerican populations that inhabited the area back then.

As explained in the INAH press release accompanying the latest revelation, one such creation myth suggests that a fellow name Cipactli – the “monster of the Earth” – created the sky and the earth from his body. At the base of this particular volcano, the so-called Nahualac site is thought to depict such a myth in some form, especially now the stone shrine has been excavated from the area’s seasonal pond.

Iztaccihuatl. AlejandroLinaresGarcia/Wikimedia Commons; GNFL

The shrine, or tetzacualo, was found in the center of this pond, whose position and topography allow for a glorious reflection of the sky and the surrounding landscape. Both the shrine and the lake are collectively thought to represent the model of the universe – a “representation of a primeval time and space,” according to the INAH.


The site of Nahualac itself was first referenced in modern times by a French explorer back in the 19th century, but it was only described in detail for the first time in 1957. Since then, increased amounts of archaeological evidence has made its way to the appropriate experts.

The stone shrine, found within the pond itself, is the latest piece of the puzzle to emerge.

The shrine, made of stacked stones, dates back to pre-Hispanic times. Just southeast of this, within a valley, archaeologists have also found pieces of ceramic work adorned with decorations, all roughly 1,000 years old, give or take a few centuries.

The team behind the discovery think that these pieces are associated with Tlaloc, whose name means “he who makes things sprout” in Nahuatl. He’s a rain god, essentially, and a pretty important one.


According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Tlaloc was the “eighth ruler of the days and the ninth lord of the nights.” He resembles an older Mayan deity, and it’s well known that the later Aztecs often assimilated older cultural artifacts in the region and made them their own.

Incidentally, because of this empyreal association, the team suspect that the springs in the valley were once used to flow not just for irrigation, but for a visual effect linked to the shrine.


The pond when water levels are low expose part of the rocky shrine. Isaac Go?mez, cortesi?a Proyecto Arqueolo?gico Nahualac, SAS-INAH

At this stage, it is unclear who constructed the shrine and the now broken ceramics. The Aztecs may have used the shrine, but the materials seem to date back a few hundreds years or so before they entered the scene.

It’s difficult to tell at present how much is known for sure and how much is more tentative. The INAH indicate that they – and their partners – are still deciphering the mysteries and artifacts behind the site.

Popocatapetl. Kuryanovich Talsiana/Shutterstock

The region has more than just one legend or myth attached to its name. Iztaccihuatl, along with the nearby mellifluously named volcano of Popocatepetl (“Smoking Mountain”), share their own Aztec tale of star-crossed lovers facing a tragic fate.


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