Were the Mayans decimated by mercury contamination?

The Mayans were fascinated by the red color, typical of mercury.  |  Jezael Melgoza via Unsplash

The Mayans were fascinated by the red color, typical of mercury. | Jezael Melgoza via Unsplash

Pollution is not the prerogative of modern cultures. As ScienceAlert says, research teams have just highlighted significant levels of mercury contamination at certain classified Mayan sites. Archaeologists who continue to work on these sites are also invited to take extreme precautions, since mercury is present in astronomical quantities, well above the thresholds considered acceptable.

“Environmental mercury contamination is generally found in contemporary urban areas and in industrial areas,” said Duncan Cook, an Australian geoarchaeologist who works on the environmental legacy left by the Maya. This time, this is not the case: the mercury found in these places has been present for centuries and has infiltrated from the basement to deep areas. At seven of the ten Classic Period (currently 6th to 9th century AD) sites they studied, scientists found incredible levels of contamination.

Widely used by industry before being belatedly singled out as dangerous, mercury was notably fatal to many 19th-century craftsmen, whose nervous systems it poisoned. For centuries, it was widely used as a dye, which made it possible to obtain the popular shades of purple. Cinnabar, a mineral species containing mercuric sulphide, was especially prized.


An ancient Mayan city emerges from a construction site

sacred but fatal

The American geoarchaeologist Nicholas Dunning evokes the Mayan civilization’s fascination with the color red: “For the Mayans, objects could contain “ch’ulel”, a spiritual force that comes from blood”. “Therefore,” he adds, “the red pigment…

Read more on Slate.fr.

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