A certain Spanish adventurer was under a lot of pressure in the summer of 1519.
He and his men had forfeited their lives by mutinying in order to go seek their fortune in the New World. After arriving there, he had scuttled the boats to thwart an unhappy faction that wanted to turn back; and now enemies surrounded them on every side while up ahead were the Aztecs–skillful fighters who wore elaborate constumes, launched attacks with screeching skull whistles, and would carve the heart out of your living chest or kill you in some other cruel way if they won.
Also, gunpowder–the Spaniards’ only hope of staying alive in the New World, let alone conquering it–was running low.
Despite all this, Hernán Cortés had to pause and describe for posterity something wonderful he had seen:
[E]ight leagues from this city of Churultecal are two very high and very marvellous mountains . . . at the end of August they have so much snow or something else on top that, if not snow, looks like it. And out of the one that is highest comes many times, day and night, a huge column of smoke, like that from a big house, rising from the mountain up into the clouds, as straight as a vein, with so much force as it emerges that, although up in the mountains the wind [is] always very strong, it cannot twist it.
— Hernán Cortés, quoted here, translated by Google Translate and me
While momentary awe is always welcome, Cortés still had urgent practicalities to attend to. Recognizing an active volcano when he saw one, he sent a team under the command of Captain Diego de Ordás up to the summit to collect sulfur for making more gunpowder.
Here is what the crater of that “smoking mountain”–Popocatépetl, in the ancient Nahuatl language–looked like in 2013 when its usually icy and snow-covered slopes were dark with ash after some eruptions.
That’s quite a climb for an armor-covered, load-carrying conquistador, even if he starts from Paso de Cortés, a little over 11,000 feet (3400 meters) above sea level and about 6,700 feet (2026 meters) below Popocatépetl’s summit.
Anyway, they went up. After discovering that the white stuff was snow (and a glacier field), de Ordás and his men crossed it somehow, despite the steep incline and powerful winds. Then, after reaching the summit, they had to descend at least partway down almost vertical crater walls (under the shadow of that rising “smoke”), find sulfur, collect it, pack it out of the crater, and then slip and slide their way back down to the pass where Cortés awaited them.
All this at high altitude, with the thin air polluted by volcanic gases and wind-borne ash. (The volcano was moderately active in 1519.)
And they made it, unlike other sulfur miners four centuries later who would die in the volcano’s crater.
Such a feat is legendary–and some people say that’s exactly what this story is. Legend.
I believe it could have happened, on the general principle that people in extreme conditions will do extreme things when their lives are on the line. Also, the exploit reportedly earned Diego de Ordás the right to display a volcano on his coat-of-arms later in life (though I’d like to see an authenticated image of the de Ordás heraldry just to be certain of the fact).
Whatever happened there in 1519, the “smoking mountain” is still called Popocatépetl (and its companion, Iztaccíhuatl–“lady in white”–because of its snow cap), but place names and some ruins are all that remain of a rich mix of ancient cultures. Spanish is the common language of México now, because Cortés and his men survived their initial challenges, and with other conquistadors, dominated these lands for a while.
But Popocatépetl’s effect on the region’s people is just as strong, and it goes back much farther in time.
Tetimpa– the “Pompeii” of México
Volcanoes are risky places, but people do live there. They need a livehood, and weathered volcanic ash makes very good farm soil.
Today, on the slopes of Popocatépetl, corn, chiles, capulin cherries, and plums are all cash crops. Some two thousand years ago–around the time that Roman legions were conquering Britain–this rich flank land supported at least one good-sized community of three to four thousand people.
The town was situated about 9 miles (15 km) from the volcano’s summit. There were hundreds of stone buildings and other structures, constructed in a very distinctive style called talud-tablero that would eventually show up on a much grander scale down in the nearby valley.
The town’s residents, like modern campesinos, knew this place was dangerous and they took steps to protect themselves. Lacking the monitoring technology that everyone living near Popocatépetl depends on today, the old-timers used rituals that were focused around knee-high, volcano-shaped altars that had little furnaces so the altar would smoke just like the big volcanic cone towering over them.
Presumably this gave them a sense of control–something every human being needs in a hazardous situation. But ritual did not blind them. These villagers must have also observed and learned the many moods of the volcano, because they weren’t around for the Plinian (major) eruption.
Sometime in the second half of the 1st century AD, there must have been a change in Popocatépetl’s behavior because the villagers moved out. They did return to tend gardens and perhaps do a little farming, but they lived somewhere else that was safer.
Luckily for them, the first big eruption came during the dry season, when the fields and gardens were untended. Two separate Plinian eruptions, at different times, buried the village under almost 5 feet (1.5 meters) of pumice!
No one knows what the villagers called their town, but today it is known as Tetimpa–“Place filled up with rock.” Archaeologists have been excavating it since the 1990s.
The most striking thing about Tetimpa is that once we have «liberated» a residential unit from the overlying volcanic ash, we are looking at a house and its surrounding landscape that no one has visited for almost two millennia . . . It is more like a ghost-town than a typical highland archaeological site; we don’t excavate the remains as much as we sweep and dust. It’s like traveling back in time to look at an ancient Mesoamerican village without the villagers.
— Plunket & Uruñuela (2000 – see source list at end of post)
Yes, without the villagers. Unlike the unfortunate Pompeiians, apparently no one was caught by surprise at Tetimpa, for no bodies or casts have been found there.
There don’t appear to be any open-access images of the Tetimpa excavation online, but you will find some in the Oppenheimer and Plunket & Uruñuela sources listed below.
I also found this video, which is in Spanish. I read a little Spanish but don’t understand the spoken word very well. Still, there are some pictures of the dig and other helpful diagrams.
For some reason, unless you’re a volcanologist, it is very hard not to anthropomorphize this gigantic and very active volcano. Something about its almost perfectly symmetrical cone and that lazy ellipse of its crater make it an appealing hook on which to hang our dreams.
Popocatépetl is also part of the human history of these highlands and possibly has played a major role in cultural developments here that goes far beyond supplying the conquistadors with sulfur.
Researchers are looking into the possibility that the eruptions that buried Tetimpa devastated the central Mexican highlands. People would have had to flee, with some of them possibly going east into the general area of modern Puebla and Tlaxcala.
Others would have gone west, down into the great basin where the city of Teotihuacán was about to rise. Not even the Aztecs knew the history of Teotihuacán. If Popocatépetl’s early-Christian-Era Plinian eruptions didn’t directly cause the social upheavel that led to its founding, then perhaps they sped the process along.
Popo doesn’t stand out among the background mountains in this video. Still, the ruined city’s dramatic pyramids and platforms show the same talud-tablero style of alternating sloped walls and flat sections that builders used on a more modest scale at Tetimpa.
Teotihuacan cast a long cultural shadow through history and, 1,000 years after its peak, the last great Pre-Columbian civilization, the Aztecs, revered the city as the origin of civilization. They believed Teotihuacan was where the gods had created the present era, including the fifth and present sun. The Aztec king Montezuma, for example, made several pilgrimages to the site during his reign in homage to the gods and the early rulers of Teotihuacan, who were “wise men, knowers of occult things, possessors of the traditions” and whose tombs were the site’s great pyramids, built for them, according to legend, by giants in the distant but not forgotten past.
In 1519, while Popocatépetl fumed on the horizon about 50 miles (90 km) away, Cortés and Montezuma had a diplomatic meeting in the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan, which was near old Teotihuacán. This peaceful initial encounter set off a chain of events that, less than a year later, led to Montezuma’s tragic death, the “Noche Triste” (which both Cortés and Diego de Ordás survived), and ultimately the fall of the Aztec empire.
All through this time, Popocatépetl was restless, with constant fumaroles and plumes of gas and ash interspersed with moderate eruptions.
Returning in force after La Noche Triste, Cortés razed Tenochtitlan and built a new Spanish capital on its ruins. Today’s Mexico City is home to over 21 million people.
During the city’s five-century evolution, Popocatépetl and its activities have become part of the lives of even more people than that. Here’s a brief summary.
According to CENAPRED (PDF [Spanish]), the government agency that monitors this volcano, before the Spaniards arrived Popocatépetl had started the 16th century off with a Plinian eruption in 1509 that Aztecs recorded, along with what I think shows volcanic lightning in the spreading cloud atop the eruption column.
After this, Popocatépetl fumed away, probably much like it does today, with occasional small to moderate eruptions until the early 18th century, when it settled down. The volcano steamed a bit in 1804, but nothing drastic happened. Then, in 1919, there was a moderate eruption, followed by an eight-year period of sporadic explosions that showered the region with ash and pumice. This is when those sulfur miners died in the crater. In 1927, the volcano went to sleep again.
It’s disconcerting to have such an unruly colossus as a neighbor. But something reassuring developed.
In the small town of Santiago Xalitzintla, less than 8 miles (12 km) from the crater, someone in the Analco family reportedly met an odd little old man one day. He called himself Gregorio and said that he was the personification of the volcano’s spirit. He promised to appear ahead of an eruption, as a warning for residents, or to calm them down if it was just going to be some steaming plumes.
In some versions, the old man’s name is Gregorio Chino, which I think is a reference to the curly clouds that sometimes bedeck Popocatépetl’s summit from its steam plume.
From this encounter came the tradition of Temperos–members of the Analco family who could commune with the volcano spirit, now known affectionately as Don Goyo. And ever since he first appeared, when March 12 rolls around (it was the traditional feast day for Catholic Saint Gregory the Great until 1969), instead of family rituals at volcano-shaped home altars, the people of Santiago Xalitzintla, with their Tempero, hold a community-wide birthday celebration for Don Goyo and give him presents.
Popocatépetl in the 20th Century
After 1927, the volcano quieted down for almost seven decades.
Time passed. Mexico City grew; World War II and Korea happened, so did the Cold War; nuclear weapons were used twice in wartime and never since; television was invented and became widespread; the Summer Olympics came, but so did the horror of Tlatelolco; two Kennedy’s were shot; humans walked on the Moon and sent a spacecraft on a photojourney through the Solar System; King Juan Carlos, across the water, fooled Franco; offshore oil reserves were found; the computer age dawned; the Berlin Wall went down and so did the Soviet Union; NAFTA was ratified; and Cantinflas came, giving joy to everyone for a long time before he was called away.
In 1994, four days before Christmas, Don Goyo woke up with a bang that spread ash and volcanic gases more than 16 miles (25 km) from the volcano. A new vent had opened underneath the old 1924 lava dome.
It was very traumatic for everyone from Temperos to the government officials who had to call repeated evacuations, as this excellent 2002 documentary–Popocatépetl: The Volcano That Listens–from Clío TV shows. (Unfortunately, again, English subtitles are not available, but even if you speak no Spanish at all, you will get the general idea.)
As Clío puts it (via Google Translate):
In 1994, Popocatépetl, a millennial volcano, erupts and showers ash. The eyes of scientists, peasants, communicators, politicians, timekeepers and plastic artists are concentrated on the colossus. This documentary reminds us of the mythical vision of when the hills were quiet.
The volcano is still active now, almost 24 years later. That is what it does: wake up, then go to sleep; wake up and then go to sleep again. This time around, though, volcanologists and geophysicists are monitoring it closely. Their scientific understanding of Popocatépetl gives solid weight to their reassurances, in the face of rumors and local concern, that this volcano is completely separate from de Fuego, which recently had a lethal eruption, and from Kilauea, out in Hawaii.
But they have updated the hazard map, and they are requesting more funds, because Popocatépetl now has some 25 million human neighbors nearby.
To be continued . . .
Featured image: Popocatepetl in January 2016, by Ukaizen, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia.
Almazan, D. 2017. El Volcan Popocatepetl. ChemaTierra. chematierra.mx/la-tierra/historia-geologica/el-volcan-popocatepetl/ Last accessed June 5, 2018.
Espinasa-Pereña, R., and Pozzo, A. L. M. 2006. Morphostratigraphic evolution of Popocatépetl volcano, México. Special Papers-Geological Society of America, 402, 115.
Ferrari, L., Orozco-Esquivel, T., Manea, V., & Manea, M. (2012). The dynamic history of the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt and the Mexico subduction zone. Tectonophysics, 522, 122-149.
Global Volcanism Program. 2018. Popocatépetl. https://volcano.si.edu/volcano.cfm?vn=341090
Gómez-Vazquez, A., De la Cruz-Reyna, S. & Mendoza-Rosas, A.T. The ongoing dome exmplacement and destruction cyclic process at Popocatepetl volcano, central Mexico. Bull Volcanol (2016) 78: 58. (Abstract only)
Oppenheimer, C. 2003,. Climatic environmental and human consequences of the largest known historic eruption: Tambora Volcano (Indonesia) 1815. Progress in Physical Geography. 27(2):230-259. doi:10.1191/0309133303pp379ra.
———. 2011. Eruptions That Shook the World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=qW1UNwhuhnUC
Plunket, P., & Uruñuela, G. (1998). Preclassic household patterns preserved under volcanic ash at Tetimpa, Puebla, Mexico. Latin American Antiquity, 9(4), 287-309. Abstract only.
—. 2000. The quick and the dead: Decision-making in the abandonment of Tetimpa. Mayab, (13), 78-87.
—. 2006. Social and cultural consequences of a late Holocene eruption of Popocatépetl in central Mexico. Quaternary International, 151(1): 19-28.
Robinson, J. 2016. Secrets of the dead: Teotihuacán’s lost kings. http://www.kpbs.org/news/2016/may/23/secrets-dead-teotihuacans-lost-kings/ Last accessed June 4, 2018.
Siebe, C., Schaaf, P., & Urrutia-Fucugauchi, J. (1999). Mammoth bones embedded in a late Pleistocene lahar from Popocatépetl volcano, near Tocuila, central Mexico. (Abstract only) Geological Society of America Bulletin, 111(10), 1550-1562.
Siebe, C., and Macías, J. L. 2006. Volcanic hazards in the Mexico City metropolitan area from eruptions at Popocatépetl, Nevado de Toluca, and Jocotitlán stratovolcanoes and monogenetic scoria cones in the Sierra Chichinautzin Volcanic Field. (Abstract only) Special Papers-Geological Society of America, 402, 253 https://tinyurl.com/yao7uckc
Sosa-Ceballos, G., Macías, J.L., García-Tenorio, F. et al. El Ventorrillo, a paleostructure of Popocatepetl volcano: insights from geochronology and geochemistry. (Abstract only) Bull Volcanol (2015) 77: 91
Wikipedia (Spanish). Last accessed June 4, 2018.
- Popocatépetl. 2018. https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Popocatépetl
- Diego de Ordás. 2018. https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diego_de_Ordás
Wikipedia (English). Popocatépetl. 2018. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Popocatépetl Last accessed June 4, 2018.