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¡Terremoto! Earthquakes in South American history and culture

The recent earthquake near Iquique and Arica in northern Chile got me thinking about the role earthquakes, and plate tectonics have played in the history of South America. For as long humans have lived on the continent they have been affected by the movement of the plates beneath them – and not only in negative ways, either. South America is by no means the only continent that has this kind of relationship with the ground beneath its feet – great quakes also occur in Asia, North America and Europe – but this blog will look at how tectonics have affected the continent dearest to our hearts.

Effects on the landscape

The landscape we love and know would be completely unrecognizable without the constant movement of the hyperactive Nazca Plate, located beneath the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Ecuador, Peru and Chile. The Nazca Plate is one of the fastest-moving plates in the world, and it is responsible for the formation of both the Andes and the Galapagos Islands – two of our greatest and most popular destinations.

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The Galapagos and the Andes were actually created in completely different ways. In the case of the Andes, the Nazca Plate’s constant movement towards and under the South American Plate caused the great mountains to rise from the earth. The Galapagos, on the other hand, were formed by the Nazca plate moving away from the neighboring Cocos Plate – the rift which developed on the ocean floor allowed magma to escape from the earth’s crust, leading to the formation of the archipelago of volcanic islands which has amazed naturalists for centuries.

Effects on Andean belief systems

Indigenous Andean mythology pays great heed to the power of the earth. The earth mother, Pachamama is not only a fertility goddess who presides over sowing and harvesting, she is also the goddess responsible for earthquakes. When the Spanish arrived and their missionaries spread Christianity, the local people morphed Pachamama with the Virgin Mary in a unique blend of mysticism and Catholicism, and the two figures are still inextricably linked. Anyone who has travelled in Andean countries will know that Pachamama is the one god who is still evoked on a daily basis by people from all walks of life.

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The most basic toast to Pachamama is called the challa, and consists of throwing some of your drink (traditionally it would be chicha but these days it is often beer or even Coke!) on the floor for Pachamama to drink, before drinking the rest yourself. If Andean mythology interests you, I highly recommend reading the novel Death in the Andes, by the Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa, as it offers a fascinating insight into the constant give-and-take between Andean people and the huaycos, or spirits of the mountain, who govern their destiny.

Great quakes through history

Fortunately the quake that occurred earlier this week did not result in cataclysmic loss of human life or damage to property, in spite of its massive size. It took place in an isolated region, with a sparse population and an extremely effective disaster-management system in place. Unfortunately, over the years South America has not always been so lucky.

Most seismologists agree that the largest earthquake ever recorded took place near the southern Chilean city of Valdivia in 1960. The quake caused widespread landslides and floods as well as a tsunami which was felt as far afield as Japan, New Zealand the Philippines. Between three and five thousand people lost their lives. This relatively low number can be attributed at least in part to the fact that traditional houses in the area were constructed of wood. The novelist Isabel Allende includes the events of this quake in her novels The House of the Spirits and The Stories of Eva Luna.

Valdivia after earthquake 1960

Another quake which will not easily be forgotten is the Lima / Callao quake of 1746. The quake itself all but destroyed the city of Lima in a matter of minutes, and the tsunami which followed half an hour later obliterated the port of Callao (nowadays a suburb of Lima) and caused great damage to many other Peruvian ports.

The great quake had an indelible impact on the Lima we know today. The city was rebuilt under the guidance of the Viceroy of the time, but the real work was carried out by the French mathematician Louis Godin*. Godin envisaged a much safer city and although his plans to eliminate all double story buildings were eventually vetoed by the wealthy classes, he insisted on the use of adobe and bamboo instead of ‘nobler materials’. Godin’s vision pf a much humbler and more gracious Lima was – for the most part – achieved, and the open boulevards, parks and plazas which we enjoy today are due in no small part to his enlightened town planning. Charles F. Walker has written a fascinating description of this rebuilding process entitled Shaky Colonialism – I haven’t read it yet, but it’s definitely on my list.


But the great quake is also remembered in another way: the mural known as the Lord of Miracles was one of the few artworks to survive the quake and as such it became a special object of veneration for the people of Lima. Every year on October 28 the image is carried through the streets of Lima and many Limeños still wear purple throughout the month of October in commemoration.

Of course earthquakes have had, and will continue to have, far greater repercussions on South American society than this blog post could ever convey, but I hope it has done something to change the way you think about earthquakes and their contribution to the fabric of a continent.

*Godin was the disgraced leader of the famous French Geodesic Mission to the Equator – the subject of an upcoming blog on this site. In many ways the rebuilding of Lima was Godin’s redemption.

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