Ancient Aztec Drawings Reveal Seismic Secrets–10 Things You Should Know

An interdisciplinary team of researchers has reinterpreted the meaning of the pictograms that illustrate the famous Telleriano-Remensis Codex, created in the 16th century in Mexico. It turned out that this document is the first description of earthquakes on the territory of North and South America.

Researchers discovered the earliest written accounts of earthquakes in Aztec pictograms

Codex Telleriano-Remensis

The Aztec code mentioned is believed to be about 500 years old. The new study finds that it represents the first written records of earthquakes in pre-Hispanic Mexico. This is generally the oldest such document for both Americas.

New approach

Researchers Gerardo Suarez and Virginia Garcia-Acosta looked at it from a seismological and anthropological perspective. As a result, they concluded that mysterious ancient Aztec pictograms tell of twelve earthquakes that occurred between 1460 and 1542 AD.

A 1496 earthquake

For example, it describes the 1496 earthquake that “shook three mountains in the province of Xochitepec, along the coast and caused landslides in the area.” The same event is described in the historical account of the infamous Franciscan monk Juan de Torquemada.

Devastating earthquake

The site described is in the Guerrero seismic strip, an area of ​​relative seismic calm along a subduction zone in southern Mexico. Historical descriptions suggest that the earthquake in 1496 could have been very strong, with a magnitude of 8 or more.

One of the pages of Codex Telleriano-Remensis. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
One of the pages of Codex Telleriano-Remensis. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Aztec pictograms of earthquakes

Scientists say the Aztec pictograms carry little information about the exact location of the disasters, their scale, and the extent of the damage they caused. But in any case, this is the first written record that describes the “seismic history” of America. For example, descriptions of earthquakes are found in ancient biblical texts, they are also known from texts on clay tablets of the peoples of Mesopotamia.

The universe

The researcher explains that the ancient civilizations of Mesoamerica viewed the Universe as a cyclical natural mechanism in which the eras were successively replaced. Each of them possessed its own sun. The processes of changing eras were preceded by destructive floods, hurricanes, forest fires, and other phenomena. Indigenous peoples believed that the current “fifth sun” would be destroyed by an earthquake.


The codex studied was created using a pre-Hispanic system of symbols and colors by specially trained scribes called tlacuilos. In the original language, this word means “those who paint pictures.”

European explanations

Moreover, the codex was written on European paper. It is provided with many explanations written in later periods in Latin, Spanish and Italian.


Earthquakes are referred to in the document as “tlal-ollin”. It was depicted using two symbols: ollin (movement) and tlalli (earth). Ollin is a glyph made up of four spirals and a central eye or circle. Tlalli is a glyph made up of one or more layers filled with dots and different colors.

Additional meanings

At the same time, the codex contains other modifications of glyphs associated with earthquakes, but their meaning still remains a mystery to scientists.

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Bressan, D. (2021, August 26). A 500-year-old aztec manuscript is the oldest written record of earthquakes in the americas. Forbes.
Davis-Marks, I. (2021, August 30). Aztec pictograms are the first written records of earthquakes in the Americas.
HeritageDaily. (2021, August 26). Pictograms are first written accounts of earthquakes In PRE-HISPANIC Mexico – HeritageDaily – Archaeology News.
Seismological Society of America. (2021, August 25). Pictograms Are First Written Accounts of Earthquakes in Pre-Hispanic Mexico.

Source: Curiosmos

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