The University of Arizona

A Devastating Plinian Eruption at Tungurahua Volcano Reveals Formative Occupation at ~1100 cal BC in Central Ecuador

Jean-Luc Le Pennec, G de Saulieu, P Samaniego, D Jaya, L Gailler


Based on archaeological and radiometric constraints, previous studies have divided pre-Columbian times of Ecuador into a succession of cultural periods. The Paleoindian and Preceramic periods encompass the time from the first Amerindian occupation to about 4000 BC. The Formative period extends from ~4000 to ~300 BC, while the Regional Development (~300 BC to ~AD 700) and Integration periods predate the Columbian period, which starts in AD 1533 in Ecuador. The Formative cultural period is poorly known from earlier studies. Here, we bring the first documentation of Formative age occupation around Tungurahua Volcano, 120 km SW of Quito, and show that local settlements were devastated by a violent eruption around 1100 cal BC. Recent volcanological works combining lithostratigraphic, petrologic, and geochronologic analyses reveal that the steep-sloped Tungurahua edifice suffered a major Late Holocene flank failure. We show that the failure event resulted from a major explosive eruption triggered by massive magma intrusion inside the volcano. Decompression of the magma due to a flank collapse resulted in a violent, high-velocity directed blast explosion, which deposited charcoal- and sherd-rich ash layers upon and near the volcano. Our 14C results range from 2225 ± 30 to 5195 ± 45 BP, but most cluster between 2640 ± 45 and 3195 ± 45 BP. A calibration analysis indicates that the event took place at ~1100 cal BC, in the Formative period. We gathered 38 pottery sherds from 3 localities. The sherds show a diversity of size, shape, color, and ornamentation. Examination of pastes, surface finish, and firing indicates that our material shares many common features from site to site. The material from Tungurahua shares affinities with the Cotocollao tradition, which developed in the Quito region between 1500 and 500 BC, and with the Machalilla tradition (coastal region of Ecuador), with the occurrence of carinated bowls with punctuate decorations at 1500–1000 BC. Our study reveals that the ~1100 cal BC Plinian eruption of Tungurahua Volcano is among the oldest known volcanic disasters in the Andes.

DOI: 10.2458/azu_js_rc.55.16225


Tephrochronology, Plinian eruption, Formative Culture, Andes, Tungurahua, Ecuador

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