Ancient Maya

Mercury pollution has the potential to cause public health disasters. This heavy metal creates a host of health problems through mercury poisoning, ranging from physical ailments to mental health. And it is widely scattered in nature — we can find it in fish or even dental fillings.

But this is not just a modern struggle. IN recent paper published in Frontiers in Environmental Science, researchers found mercury poisoning beneath the soil of the ancient Maya in Mesoamerica. Mercury concentrations ranged from 0.016 to 17.16 ppm (parts per million). In certain areas this indicates high toxicity, considering that mercury is toxic in sediments defined as 1 ppm.

And although these finds date back to the Classic period, between 250 and 1100 AD, mercury poisoning can still pose a threat to archaeologists today.

“Finding mercury buried deep in the soils and sediments of ancient Maya cities is difficult to explain until we look at the archeology of the region, which tells us that the Maya used mercury for centuries,” said lead author Dr. Duncan Cook, Associate Professor of Geography at the Australian Catholic University in a press release.

Chronic mercury poisoning can cause damage to the central nervous system, kidneys and liver. It can also cause tremors, impaired vision and hearing, paralysis and mental health problems, according to a news release.

And researchers believe these health effects appear in ancient Mayan history. Dark Sun was one of the last Mayan rulers of Tikal around 810 AD. and is depicted as morbidly obese. Mercury poisoning causes a symptom of metabolic syndromewhich is a combination of conditions such as coronary heart disease, diabetes and stroke.

But where does mercury poisoning come from? Researchers have found sealed mercury vessels at several Mayan sites, and other archaeologists have found objects with mercury-containing paints. Meaning for decoration, the ancient Maya used mercury-containing dust and cinnabar for patios, flooring, walls and pottery. From here, the mercury may have spread into the soil and water.

“For the Maya, objects could contain chulel or soul power that resided in the blood. Therefore, the brilliant red pigment of cinnabar was a precious and sacred substance, but unbeknownst to them it was also deadly, and its legacy lives on in soils and sediments around ancient Maya sites,” says co-author Dr Nicholas Dunning, a professor at the University of Cincinnati in a press release.

Cook and colleagues reviewed all data on soil and sediment mercury concentrations in Chunchumil in present-day Mexico; Marco Gonzalez, Chan b’i and Actuncan in Belize; La Corona, Tikal, Peten Itza, Piedras Negras and Cancun in Guatemala; Palmarejo in Honduras and Cerén, the Mesoamerican “Pompeii,” in El Salvador, according to a press release.

But the authors suggest more research is needed to understand the role of mercury poisoning in the Mayan world.

“We conclude that even the ancient Maya, who hardly used metals, caused significant increases in mercury concentrations in their environment. This result is further evidence that just as we live in the “Anthropocene” today, there was also a “Mayan Anthropocene” or “Mayacene.” Metal pollution appears to have been a result of human activity throughout history,” co-author Dr. Tim Beach, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said in a press release.

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