If you open any book containing some history of volcanology (e.g., The Encyclopedia of Volcanoes), you will always find the same story: first the "internal wind" theory of ancient Greeks, then the account of the AD 79 Vesuvius eruption by Pliny the Younger, then the discoveries of the eighteenth century by Guettard, Desmarest, and others, etc. Only European scientists studying European volcanoes.

While I am not questioning the tremendous contributions of these studies to our current understanding of the volcanic phenomenon, I wonder if there are similar texts from other parts of the world. I'm thinking of places like Japan, China, the Arab world, Mesoamerica... All of which have had both active volcanoes and a writing system for quite some time. Considering this, there must exist accounts of eruptions, or old volcanological theories, in Old Japanese or Classical Arabic.

  • $\begingroup$ I am aware that this is a super broad question, sorry... But I can't see how to narrow it down. Fishes are scarce so I throw a large net! $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 21, 2022 at 14:03
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    $\begingroup$ Unfurtunately I don't have the book with me in this moment, but I suggest to give a look to the Volume 3 of Needham's Science and Civilisation in China (for sure there are chapters on geology and seismology, not sure about volcanology) $\endgroup$
    – user6530
    Commented Apr 13, 2022 at 20:57
  • $\begingroup$ @user6530 Thank you for pointing to this reference, I'll look for a copy of the book! $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 14, 2022 at 13:41
  • $\begingroup$ @user6530 So, there is actually a section on volcanoes pages 610$-$611, but it is very brief. Needham begins with "As there are in China proper no volcanoes, all information on this subject had to come from outside", which I find odd considering the Millennium eruption... Anyway, it was an interesting read since it has some cool information on early seismology, so thanks again! $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 19, 2022 at 10:12

2 Answers 2


Here is a first list of things that I've found in the literature. I will update it as I gather more. They are more "accounts" than "theories", but interesting nonetheless (at least to me!). I won't quote every account here for the sake of brevity, but they are available in the cited references.

  • In the Arabic peninsula, there are historical accounts of the 1256 CE eruption of the Harrat Rahat volcanic field, according to Camp et al. (1987):

Two eyewitness accounts of the eruption were written by A1-Kistlani, a resident of Madinah, and Kadi Sinaan, the judge at Makkah. These manuscripts are no longer extant, but their descriptions are paraphrased in two later manuscripts; one, Wafa A1-Wafa, was written in 1568 A.D. (976 A.H.) (reprinted in A1-Samhoudy 1954) and the other, Jazb Al-Kulub, was recorded by an early European traveler, JL Burkhardt, and published as a footnote in Burton (1893). These two sources show remarkably good agreement in detail and dates which, together with our field observations, permit a reconstruction of events (Table 1).

  • In Indonesia, a recent study (Malawani et al., 2022) found accounts of the 1257 CE eruption of Samalas volcano; although they were probably written centuries later and thus "represent a recent recording of what appears to have been older oral traditions".

  • In Indonesia still, History of the volcanology in the former Netherlands East Indies (Neumann van Padang, 1983) contains interesting data on volcanic eruptions found in ancient Javanese sources, although he mainly cites Van Hinloopen Labberton (1921), which is hard to find and written in Dutch. He also questions the validity of some dates:

A problem with the use of these ancient sources is the fact that eruptions and earthquakes at the birth and death of princes were used to emphasize their importance and divine offspring. It is therefore more than likely that the dates of the eruptions were made to coincide with such events by either changing the date of the eruption or the date of birth (c.q. death) of the princes (see van Bemmelen, 1956).

  • The Persian book Sharafnama (Sharaf Khan Bitlisi, 1597) contains a description of an eruption of Mount Nemrut (Turkey), which has been translated and interpreted by Aydar et al. (2003).

  • Karakhanian et al. (2002) list several eruptions in Armenia and adjacent countries, inferred from historical chronicles. Among them, the following cuneiform inscription, attributed to King Argishti I, is interpreted as an eruption of Porak volcano in 782$–$773 BCE:

...when I again (for the second time) laid the siege of the town of Behoura, Mount Bamni in the area of Behoura Town was destroyed...; smoke and soot now rise from it to the sun. When Mount Bamni was destroyed, I took the town of Behoura.

  • Martin-Del Pozzo et al. (2016) did a reconstruction of 800 years of eruptive activity of Popocatépetl, including some pre-Columbian sources (codices) documenting the activity of the volcano.

  • Yun et al. (2023) is a re-assessment of historical records about Mt. Baekdu volcanic activity based on Japanese, Korean and Chinese sources.

To be continued...


Joseph Needham wrote an extensive series on books, all titled "Science and Civilization in China", with the various volumes dedicated to different topics. The volumes are freely available on Archive.org along with his other works. You may need to create a free account to access the works.

Volume 3 has sections 23 and 24 devoted to Geology and Seismology respectively.

To quote the section on Volcanoes (pp. 610-611; see linked text above for the footnotes, which describe references and additional notes):

This brings us to volcanic phenomena. As there are in China proper no volcanoes, all information on this subject had to come from outside.c One of the first references occurs in the late +3rd-century Shzh I Chi:

In ‘Tai-Yii Shan3 there is an abyss a thousand miles deep, in which water is always boiling. Metal or stones thrown into it are attacked and reduced to mud. In winter the water dries up and yellow smoke billows forth from the ground many yards high. People who live among these mountains dig down to the depth of several tens of feet and get scorched stone like charcoal, which will burn with flames. It can be ignited by a candle, and the flames are blue. The deeper they dig the more fire they get.d

This does not sound like an eye-witness account, and some believe that it was a description of Mt Etna brought by Syrian traders, though it seems at least equally likely that it may derive from reports of the south seas brought back by official travellers like Khang Thai, who was envoy to Indo-China about + 260.e


Chien,1 in his encyclopaedic Chhu Hsiieh Chia (Entry into Learning), noteda that if the upper reaches of a stream smell sulphurous, its springs are likely to be warm or hot.b About +800 Li Ho3 described an arseniferous spring. In the Sung, the author of the Chhi Tung Yeh Yii believed that the heat was caused by the combustion of sulphur and alum underground.c In the Ming, Wang Chih-Chien4 listed many curious kinds of mineral-laden waters and their effects.d A whole monograph could of course be written on Chinese ideas concerning volcanic phenomenae.

Regarding earthquakes, there is a section on seismology on pp. 624-635. I won't attempt to reproduce much here as it is obviously a lot of text, but in general, China has a quite active seismological history, not least produced by the uplift of the Himalaya. Needham mentions records going back to 780 BC:

If China had no active volcanoes it nevertheless formed part of one of the world’s greatest areas of seismic disturbance from the earliest times. It was natural, therefore, that the Chinese should have kept extensive records of earthquakes, and these indeed now constitute the longest and most complete series which we have for any part of the earth’s surface...

...Among the earliest was that of —780 mentioned in the Shih Chi, when the courses of three rivers were interrupted.

The section goes on to describe methods of detection of earthquakes, including early seismographs, which were capable of telling the direction from which an earthquake had come.

Of particular interest to this topic might be the references contained in the book(s) by Needham, these include reference works by authors from various time periods, and I don't know if any are available in English (or languages other than Chinese), but these are some from the sections on volcanology that seem to cover quite a bit:

  1. Li Fang (ed.), That-Phing Yii Lan (the Thai-Phing reign-period (Sung) Imperial Encyclopaedia), +983.

  2. Chhih Ya. Information about the Naked Ones [Miao and other tribespeople]. Ming, +16th or +17th century. Kuang Lu.

  3. I Chao Liao Tsa Chi. Miscellaneous Records from the I-Chao Cottage. Sung, +12th century. Chu I.

  • $\begingroup$ Yes, this source had already been covered in part by comments below the question, but it's good to have it as a proper answer for future readers. Thanks! $\endgroup$ Commented May 7 at 7:22

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