40Ar/39Ar dating of 15 lava flows indicates that Volcán de Santa María grew episodically to 8 km3 in size at an average rate of 0.12 km3/ka between 103 and 35 ka. The composite cone grew in four phases, including two periods of intense activity at ca. 72 ka and ca. 35 ka, during which 1.5 km3 and 3 km3 of basaltic to andesitic magmas were erupted. There is no evidence of further volcanism after ca. 35 ka until the great dacitic eruption in 1902. The average eruptive rate is 0.16 km3/ka, if products of the 1902 eruption and subsequent Santiaguito dome are included. Whereas the Mono Lake excursion is not clearly recorded at Volcán de Santa María, as had been inferred from earlier studies, virtual geomagnetic poles (VGPs) of the 35 ka cone-forming lavas exhibit high-amplitude paleosecular variation that may correspond in time to the Mono Lake excursion. Two older packages of lava flows are each associated with a distinctive cluster of VGPs, which supports the 40Ar/39Ar age model and the conclusion that cone building was episodic. During the final 60% of cone growth, lavas evolved from basaltic to andesitic (51%–57% SiO2) with time, but with a regression to slightly less evolved compositions during the onset of the final cone-building phase. Despite the relatively small volume of Santa María, cone-growth processes and geochemical evolution through time mirror observations at other currently active volcanoes along the Central American volcanic arc, and may prove useful as an analogy in assessing long-term hazards posed by other predominantly basaltic-andesitic composite volcanoes.

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