This pictogram is one of the oldest known accounts of earthquakes in the Americas

The written chronology in a 16th century codex was created by a pre-Hispanic civilization

pictogram showing an earthquake and warriors in a river

This pictogram tells of an earthquake that took place in the year 1507. The quake is represented by the symbol (middle, right) composed of four dotted yellow rectangles overlain by four helices (in blue and white) with a red eye at the center. The pictogram also describes one impact of the quake: the drowning of 1,800 warriors in a river (bottom).

G. Suárez and V. García-Acosta/Seismological Research Letters 2021

A 50-page codex of colorful, complex pictograms that dates to the early 16th century includes the most complete — and one of the oldest — written chronologies of early earthquakes in the Americas.

The Telleriano-Remensis, which was created by an unknown pre-Hispanic civilization, describes 12 separate earthquakes that rocked what’s now Mexico and Central America from 1460 to 1542, researchers report August 25 in Seismological Research Letters. The famous codex was written by specialists called tlacuilos, meaning “those who write painting” in the Nahuatl language spoken by Aztecs and other pre-Hispanic civilizations in the area (SN: 3/13/20).

Using other codices from the region, researchers had previously identified the combination of two pictographs that denotes an earthquake. One shows four helices around a central circle or eye, and stands for ollin, meaning “movement” in Nahuatl. The other pictograph shows one or more rectangular layers filled with dots, and means tlalli, or “earth.” For daytime earthquakes, the eye is open; for nighttime quakes, it’s closed.

pictograph showing a central eye followed by a plus sign and a pictograph showing a box with dots
In codices written by pre-Hispanic civilizations who spoke Nahuatl, such as the Aztecs, the combination of two symbols represents an earthquake, or tlalollin. One pictograph (left) shows four helices with a central eye and stands for ollin, or “movement.” The second (right) is a rectangular box filled with dots, often in layers, and represents tlalli, or “earth.”G. Suárez and V. García-Acosta/Seismological Research Letters 2021

Seismologist Gerardo Suárez of the National Autonomous University of Mexico and social anthropologist Virginia García-Acosta of the Center for Research and Higher Studies in Social Anthropology, both in Mexico City, pored over the Telleriano-Remensis. The researchers were looking for representations of quakes, comparing what they found to accounts of quakes in other pre-Hispanic codices and texts written later by Spanish friars.

The Telleriano-Remensis uses a pictorial representation of a 52-year cycle to roughly date the quakes. Years are represented by four signs— tecpatl (knife), calli (house), tochtli (rabbit) and acatl (reed) — arranged in 13 permutations. Those images helped the researchers match some pictorial accounts of quakes, including one in 1507, to later descriptions of the events.

Little more is recounted about the precise locations of these quakes or the damage they caused, although one image suggests that a quake triggered flooding that drowned warriors. Other codices may contain more clues, the researchers say, which could help create a more complete chronology of the quakes that shook this ancient world.

Carolyn Gramling is the earth & climate writer. She has bachelor’s degrees in geology and European history and a Ph.D. in marine geochemistry from MIT and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

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