Archaeologists speculate what could have caused the content of a large amount of mercury; to this day, this toxic substance is in the water and the soil in an increased concentration in the areas of ancient Mayan cities. However, the ancient Mayans were unaware of mercury exposure’s dangers and used it for several purposes.

Mercury in Mayan Cities

Scientists have found concentrations of mercury beneath the surface of ancient Mayan cities. The study concludes that this pollution is not recent but is caused by the frequent use of mercury and mercury-containing products from 250 to 1100 AD. However, the pollution is so severe in some places that it poses a potential health risk to archaeologists today.

For the first time, Professor Duncan Cook’s team reviewed all data on mercury concentrations in soil and sediments at archaeological sites throughout the ancient Maya world. Concentrations range from 0.016 parts per million (ppm) at Actuncan to an extraordinary 17.16 ppm at Tikal.

The Mayan Culture Used Mercury

The authors found mercury in many locations: Chunchumil in present-day Mexico, 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, the Mesoamerican “Pompeii,” in El Salvador. Somewhere sealed vessels filled with mercury have been found; elsewhere, archaeologists have found objects painted with mercury-containing paints.

The ancient Maya often used paints and powders containing mercury. They painted floor surfaces, terraces, walls, and ceramics. From there, mercury could gradually enter the soil and water. Researchers believe that traders brought mercury into the cities from deposits on the northern and southern edges of the ancient Maya world.

Mercury may have posed health risks to the ancient Maya. Chronic mercury poisoning causes, for example, damage to the central nervous system, kidneys, and liver, tremors, impaired vision and hearing, paralysis, and psychological problems. One of the last Mayan rulers of Tikal, the ruler of the Dark Sun, is depicted in the frescoes as pathologically obese. Obesity is a known consequence of metabolic syndrome, which can be caused by chronic mercury poisoning.