Archaeologists have discovered that ancient Maya cities were dangerously contaminated with massive amounts of Mercury.
What would be a logical explanation for finding a massive amount of Mercury in the ancient world? There is no easy explanation, and we can probably make educated guesses about what the ancient civilizations used mercury for. We find evidence of mercury use in different cultures across the world. We find evidence of it in Ancient China, we find evidence of it in the Americas. But the exact reason remains a mystery. Now, we have come across another mystery: massive amounts of mercury and mercury pollution have been identified by archaeologists in the ancient Maya world.
There is no end to the wonders that the ancient Maya cities in Mesoamerica have to offer. However, beneath the surface of the soil, there is an unexpected danger: mercury pollution. The Maya of the Classic Period, between 250 and 1100 CE, frequently used mercury and mercury-containing products, leading to this pollution, according to a review article published in Frontiers in Environmental Science. In places, the pollution is so heavy that even today, it could pose a health hazard to archeologists who are unwary. “Mercury pollution in the environment is often found in industrial landscapes and urban areas,” said lead author Dr. Duncan Cook of the Australian Catholic University. There is no easy explanation for finding mercury buried deep in soils and sediments in ancient Maya cities, until we look into the archeology of the region, indicating that the Maya used mercury for centuries.”
In this study, Cook and colleagues reviewed all mercury levels in soil and sediments across ancient Maya sites for the first time. In the Classical Period, mercury pollution could be detected everywhere except at Chan B’i, a Mesoamerican ‘Pompeii’ site in El Salvador. These sites include Chunchumil in the present day Mexican, Marco Gonzales, Chan b’i, and Actuncan in Belize, La Corona, Tikal, Petén Itzá, Piedras Negras, and Cancuén in Guatemala, Palmarejo in Honduras, and Cerén, which is a Mesoamerican ‘Pompeiii’ in El Salvador. Actuncan has concentrations as low as 0.016 parts per million and Tikal has concentrations as high as 17.16 parts per million. Comparatively, mercury in sediments is considered toxic at 1 part per million (ppm).
Why was there mercury pollution during prehistoric times? Some Maya sites have been found to contain sealed vessels filled with metallic mercury, such as Quiriqua (Guatemala), El Paraso (Honduras), or Teotihuacan (Central Mexico), which used to be a multi-ethnic city. Other Maya objects were painted with mercury-containing paints, primarily made from the mineral cinnabar, in other parts of the region. It is concluded from the authors’ study that the ancient Maya frequently decorated their walls with cinnabar paints and mercury-containing powders. Soil and water could have been contaminated by this mercury that leached from patios, floors, walls, and ceramics.
In Maya civilization, objects contained soul-force, or ch’ulel, which was found in the blood. According to co-author Dr. Nicholas Dunning, a professor at the University of Cincinnati, cinnabar was a powerful and precious pigment, but it was also deadly, and it remains a legacy in soils and sediments around ancient Maya sites to this day. In light of the rarity of mercury in the limestone that underlies much of the Mayan region, it is possible that elemental mercury and cinnabar found at Maya sites were originally mined in nearby regions near the northern and southern limits of the ancient Mayan world, and imported by traders to the cities.
In addition to harming the central nervous system, kidneys, and liver, chronic mercury poisoning also causes tremors, impaired vision and hearing, paralysis, and mental health problems in the ancient Maya world. Dark Sun, the last ruler of Tikal around 810 CE, is depicted as pathologically obese in frescoes. It is well known that chronic mercury poisoning can lead to obesity as a side effect of metabolic syndrome.
There is still much work to be done in order to determine whether mercury exposure played a role in larger sociocultural changes and trends during the Classic Period in the Maya world. Prof. Tim Beach of the University of Texas at Austin, the study’s co-author, stated: “We conclude that even the ancient Maya, who used little metal, caused mercury concentrations in their environment to spike.” It is yet another indication that, just as we live in the ‘Anthropocene’ today, there was also a ‘Maya anthropocene’ or ‘Mayacene.’ The contamination of metals by human activity has been a constant throughout history.”
Just as it remains a mystery as to why the ancient Maya used mercury in such excessive amounts, it remains, for example, a mystery why ancient cities like Teotihuacan contained huge amounts of mica. Mica was also mined by ancient Hindus as early as 2000 B.C., and they used it for decorative purposes, medicine, window glazing, and mythological scenes painted on it.
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