They found concentrations of mercury toxic to the environment in ancient Mayan sites

Environmental scientists showed that mercury can still be detected many centuries later in today’s environment

Mercury has a transcendent history for the oldest populations on the planet. The region of Mexico and Central America has a history of this metal that began at least two millennia before European colonization in the 16th century. It was believed back then that mercury had mystical properties and so they tried to use it to transform base metals into gold.

Unfortunately, the environmental legacy of this long history of mercury use has not been considered to date.

The ancient Maya used cinnabar, a form of mercury, for decorative and ceremonial purposes. Archaeological records show cinnabar and rare finds of liquid mercury in important funerary and religious contexts.

It has also been found in pots, vessels, in buried soils in some Mayan sites and in tunnels under the Teotihuacan pyramids, but no one yet knows where it came from and how they got it.

There is evidence that it was used in ancient India and China as an aphrodisiac and contraceptive and as late as the mid-20th century as a cure for syphilis.

Archaeologists have reported extensive deposits of cinnabar (HgS) and other mercury materials in ancient human settlements throughout the region.

ACU geoarchaeology expert Associate Professor Duncan Cook has pulled together data collected by archaeologists over the past century and combined it with exciting new research by environmental scientists.

The data obtained, published in the journal Frontiers in Environmental Science, show that this mercury can still be detected many centuries later in today’s environment.

Ancient Mayan sites in Guatemala, Belize, Mexico‘s Yucatan, El Salvador, and Honduras report ambient concentrations of mercury that equal or exceed modern benchmarks for toxicity.

Cinnabar sources may be hundreds of kilometers from where mercury has been detected, at the end of ancient trade routes. ”Archaeology has shown us that the Mayans used mercury materials, but we are no closer to understanding where the Mayans got their mercury or how they produced liquid mercury.

The way forward is to combine what we see in the archaeological record with scientific measurements of inherited mercury to gain a much richer understanding of how, where, and when the Maya used mercury based on what is still in the environment today.

We are working with archaeologists and using what we find in the present to better understand the past. When it comes to the Maya, much of what we think we know is rapidly being rewritten in the 21st century.” Said Duncan Cook, specialist at the National School of Arts and Humanities, Australian Catholic University

The specialist located and summarized all published data sets collected from ancient Mayan settlements that include environmental measurements of mercury. Elevated mercury sites are typically ancient Maya occupation areas used in the Late Classic Period, situated within large urban settlements abandoned by the 10th century AD.

“We are really only at the beginning of understanding the relationship between mercury and the Maya in pre-Columbian times.

New research is now needed to begin to identify how widespread mercury contamination was in the Mayan environment, and also to identify how mercury impacted their community.

Once we get a better understanding of mercury contamination, and a better understanding of how the Maya may have been affected, by looking at mercury preserved in human remains, we can begin to consider where mercury exposure played a role in major change and sociocultural tendencies” concluded Cook.