The mineral cinnabar is bright red and the Mayans must have loved this color. According to archaeological finds, they painted houses and palaces with cinnabar during their so-called classical period, i.e. from around 250 to 1100 AD, handled red-decorated ceramics and even decorated tools. with the pigment. They also used the cloth during rituals, such as funerals. Maybe that’s why they liked to use cinnabar so much because its color resembled blood, and they thought it contained life force – that’s probably why they also cultivated rituals with cinnabar. blood and human sacrifices. But the magnificent color was also dangerous, it is a combination of mercury and sulfur. And apparently for the love of vermilion, the Mayans massively contaminated their cities with mercury and thus possibly rendered them uninhabitable in the long term.
Scientists around geographer Duncan Cook from the Australian Catholic University of Brisbane have compiled all available data on the soil conditions of ancient Mayan cities. Like they now in the magazine Frontiers in Environmental Science report, they found no increase in mercury levels at a single settlement, Chan b’i on the coast of present-day Belize – possibly because the place was not permanently inhabited. In contrast, in six of the other nine ancient cities, they found at least one place so polluted that the current limit value of one microgram of mercury per gram of sediment is usually exceeded several times. The old interiors and courtyards of apartment buildings and workshops are particularly affected. In fact, in Tikal, in present-day Guatemala, and in Cerén, in present-day El Salvador, all the soil samples were contaminated.
The toxic substance probably also ended up in the food.
It is generally known that people in Central America used mercury. Already one to two millennia before the beginning of the Christian era, cinnabar was mined in today’s central and western Mexico as well as in today’s southern Guatemala and in Honduras. today. In the Mayan settlement area, the mineral is relatively rare; it probably got there through trade. During the excavations of Mayan cities, not only decorated objects were unearthed, but also vessels with cinnabar pigments and even liquid mercury.
But according to the findings of Cook’s team, the Mayans were apparently constantly exposed to mercury in their cities. And the substance has probably also found its way into food and drink. A few years ago, scientists led by University of Cincinnati biologist David Lentz analyzed sediment in the water reservoirs of the Mayan city of Tikal and found that the water was contaminated with mercury. The rain had probably washed the vermilion off the walls and places in the pools from which the Maya drew their drinking water. Researchers have found highly enriched mercury in human bones at both Tikal and the ancient Mayan city of Palenque.
Archaeological discoveries do not reveal the health consequences that this had. Mercury damages nerves and organs such as the kidneys and liver. The main toxic substances for humans are mercury vapor and certain organic compounds such as methylmercury, which can accumulate in fish for example. But prolonged exposure to small amounts of mercury is also harmful.
The Maya ruled Central America for more than two millennia. However, they left many of their cities at the end of their classical period. Climate change, droughts and conflicts are discussed as reasons for this. Life in these cities may also become increasingly unhealthy. Archaeologists today should keep this in mind, Duncan Cook’s team advises. The legacy of the Maya consists not only of temples and ruins, but also of a heavy metal in the ground. If you want to dig in a Mayan city, consider protecting yourself from mercury poisoning.