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Walking through volcanic mud: the 2,100-year-old Acahualinca footprints (Nicaragua)

I: Stratigraphy, lithology, volcanology and age of the Acahualinca section


We present the stratigraphy, lithology, volcanology, and age of the Acahualinca section in Managua, including a famous footprint layer exposed in two museum pits. The ca. 4-m-high walls of the main northern pit (Pit I) expose excellent cross sections of Late Holocene volcaniclastic deposits in northern Managua. We have subdivided the section into six lithostratigraphic units, some of which we correlate to Late Holocene eruptions. Unit I (1.2 m thick), chiefly of hydroclastic origin, begins with the footprint layer. The bulk is dominated by mostly massive basaltic-andesitic tephra layers, interpreted to represent separate pulses of a basically phreatomagmatic eruptive episode. We correlate these deposits based on compositional and stratigraphic evidence to the Masaya Triple Layer erupted at Masaya volcano ca. 2,120 ± 120 a B.P.. The eruption occurred during the dry season. A major erosional channel unconformity up to 1 m deep in the western half of Pit I separates Units II and I. Unit II begins with basal dacitic pumice lapilli up to 10 cm thick overlain by a massive to bedded fine-grained dacitic tuff including a layer of accretionary lapilli and pockets of well-rounded pumice lapilli. Angular nonvesicular glass shards are interpreted to represent hydroclastic fragmentation. The dacitic tephra is correlated unequivocally with the ca. 1.9-ka-Plinian dacitic Chiltepe eruption. Unit III, a lithified basaltic-andesitic deposit up to 50 cm thick and extremely rich in branch molds and excellent leaf impressions, is correlated with the Masaya Tuff erupted ca. 1.8 ka ago. Unit IV, a reworked massive basaltic-andesitic deposit, rich in brown tuff clasts and well bedded and cross bedded in the northwestern corner of Pit I, cuts erosionally down as far as Unit I. A poorly defined, pale brown mass flow deposit up to 1 m thick (Unit V) is overlain by 1–1.5 m of dominantly reworked, chiefly basaltic tephra topped by soil (Unit VI). A major erosional channel carved chiefly between deposition of Units II and I may have existed as a shallow drainage channel even prior to deposition of the footprint layer. The swath of the footprints is oriented NNW, roughly parallel to, and just east of, the axis of the channel. The interpretation of the footprint layer as the initial product of a powerful eruption at Masaya volcano followed without erosional breaks by additional layers of the same eruptive phase is strong evidence that the group of 15 or 16 people tried to escape from an eruption.

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Our work was financed by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft. This publication is contribution no. 141 of the Sonderforschungsbereich (SFB) 574 “Volatiles and Fluids in Subduction Zones” at Kiel University. We thank DA Swanson, C Principe, P Cole and J McPhie for critical comments that helped to improve the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Hans-Ulrich Schmincke.

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Editorial responsibility: J. McPhie

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Schmincke, HU., Kutterolf, S., Perez, W. et al. Walking through volcanic mud: the 2,100-year-old Acahualinca footprints (Nicaragua). Bull Volcanol 71, 479–493 (2009).

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  • Acahualinca footprints
  • Lake Managua
  • Erosional channeling
  • Nicaragua
  • Volcanic hazards