Scientists Discover an Unexpected Danger Lurking in Ancient Mayan Cities

Ancient Mayan Temple

An image depicting an ancient Mayan temple.

Mercury exposure may have been a health risk for the ancient Maya.

Mesoamerica’s ancient Maya cities never cease to amaze visitors. However, an unexpected danger lurks under the soil’s surface: mercury pollution. Researchers have found in a review article published in the journal Frontiers in Environmental Science that this pollution is not modern: it is the result of the Maya’s widespread usage of mercury and mercury-containing products between 250 and 1100 CE. There are areas where the pollution is so severe that it might pose a health risk to unsuspecting archaeologists today.

Lead author Dr. Duncan Cook, an associate professor of Geography at the Australian Catholic University, said: “Mercury pollution in the environment is usually found in contemporary urban areas and industrial landscapes. Discovering mercury buried deep in soils and sediments in ancient Maya cities is difficult to explain until we begin to consider the archeology of the region which tells us that the Maya were using mercury for centuries.”

Ancient anthropogenic pollution

For the first time, Cook and colleagues here reviewed all data on mercury concentrations in soil and sediments at archeological sites across the ancient Maya world. They demonstrate that mercury pollution is detectable everywhere except at Chan b’i at sites from the Classical Period for which measurements are available, including Chunchumil in modern-day Mexico, Marco Gonzales, and Actuncan in Belize, La Corona, Tikal, Petén Itzá, Piedras Negras, and Cancuén in Guatemala, Palmarejo in Honduras, and Cerén, a Mesoamerican “Pompeii.”

Concentrations vary from 0.016 ppm at Actuncan to an astounding 17.16 ppm in Tikal. For comparison, the Toxic Effect Threshold (TET) for mercury in sediments is defined as 1 ppm.

Heavy users of mercury

What caused this prehistoric mercury pollution? The authors highlight that sealed vessels filled with ‘elemental’ (ie, liquid) mercury have been found at several Maya sites, for example, Quiriqua in Guatemala, El Paraíso in Honduras, and the former multi-ethnic megacity Teotihuacan in Central Mexico. Elsewhere in the Maya region, archeologists have found objects painted with mercury-containing paints, mainly made from the mineral cinnabar.

The authors conclude that the ancient Maya frequently used cinnabar and mercury-containing paints and powders for decoration. This mercury could then have leached from patios, floor areas, walls, and ceramics, and subsequently spread into the soil and water.

“For the Maya, objects could contain ch’ulel, or soul-force, which resided in blood. Hence, the brilliant red pigment of cinnabar was an invaluable and sacred substance, but unbeknownst to them it was also deadly and its legacy persists in soils and sediments around ancient Maya sites,” said co-author Dr. Nicholas Dunning, a professor at the University of Cincinnati.

As mercury is rare in the limestone that underlies much of the Maya region, they speculate that elemental mercury and cinnabar found at Maya sites could have been originally mined from known deposits on the northern and southern confines of the ancient Maya world, and imported to the cities by traders.

Health hazards and the ‘Mayacene’

All this mercury would have posed a health hazard for the ancient Maya: for example, the effects of chronic mercury poisoning include damage to the central nervous system, kidneys, and liver, and cause tremors, impaired vision and hearing, paralysis, and mental health problems. It’s perhaps significant that one of the last Maya rulers of Tikal, Dark Sun, who ruled around 810 CE, is depicted in frescoes as pathologically obese. Obesity is a known effect of metabolic syndrome, which can be caused by chronic mercury poisoning.

More research is needed to determine whether mercury exposure played a role in larger sociocultural changes and trends in the Maya world, such as those towards the end of the Classic Period.

Co-author Dr. Tim Beach, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said: “We conclude that even the ancient Maya, who barely used metals, caused mercury concentrations to be greatly elevated in their environment. This result is yet more evidence that just like we live today in the ‘Anthropocene’, there also was a ‘Maya anthropocene’ or ‘Mayacene’. Metal contamination seems to have been an effect of human activity throughout history.”

Reference: “Environmental legacy of pre-Columbian Maya mercury” by Duncan E. Cook, Timothy P. Beach, Sheryl Luzzadder-Beach, Nicholas P. Dunning and Simon D. Turner, 23 September 2022, Frontiers in Environmental Science.
DOI: 10.3389/fenvs.2022.986119

The study was funded by the Australian Research Council. 

44 Comments on "Scientists Discover an Unexpected Danger Lurking in Ancient Mayan Cities"

  1. When is CE compared to real real dates?

  2. It how they made gold that why they had quartz tubs

  3. Cinnabar (mercury sulfide) is relatively insoluble and poses low biological risk. Wild life in areas where cinnabar is mined show no impact from mercury. Even metallic mercury will pass through the human digestive system with low impact. Acute, or transient exposures, will be eliminated through the urine, reducing the load. However, the vapor is VERY toxic. So, it isn’t the elemental equivalent mercury content that is critical, it is the bio-availability, which is largely determined by the solubility in water or dilute hydrochloric acid, and the exposure to mercury vapor if people were driving off mercury to recover gold from amalgam. Crushing the cinnabar to make pigment, may release some metallic mercury. If it is then applied daily, it becomes a chronic exposure that may exceed the rate at which the body can remove it. I think that the generalizations made about its environmental abundance show a lack of understanding of the toxicology of mercury. There is something else to consider: Methylmercury, which is toxic and soluble, is created by anaerobic bacteria in the presence of elemental mercury, and can accumulate in fish. I understand that some of the Mayan cities had canals and lakes. If they were eating fish, particularly raw fish, that would be a likely source. However, the answer to the problem would be to analyze the bones of the dead Mayans to see if they had high concentrations of mercury. Apparently speculation is preferred to analysis.

    • I am quite sure of the accuracy of your information and summation. I also agree that the bones will tell the truth of the effects of mercury poisoning if it happened as stated. Thank you for your enlightening.

    • While I feel like Clyde Spencer’s comment is well informed and probably all correct. I can’t help but think about this south park scene when he says it isn’t necessarily toxic.

  4. That’s an informed comment.

  5. CE means current era and is the equivalent of AD. I just learned this recently

  6. I must echo Clyde Spencer’s comment- bone analysis will tell the full tale. Interesting article, but more evidence and research is needed to conclude that mercury usage is exactly what ended the Maya’s age of dominance. It seems plausible that over-farming could have led to aridification, which also threatens today’s civilization.

  7. Virginia y Todd Fippinger | December 16, 2022 at 11:36 am | Reply

    Mercury was used to depict water at many sacred sites especially their representation of the entrance to the underworld.
    We live in Merida and are blessed to have many Mayan friends with historic tales passed through the generations.

  8. Yes, while it’s true that AD is not PC, CE is based on the changing of BC, Before Christ, to BCE, Before the Common Era. Those that decided this change overstepped their boundaries of authority to the point where they should be punished, stripped of all present and future authority, tarred, feathered, and rode out on a rail. I personally don’t think that 2,000 or 1,000 years ago constitutes the “common era”. We are in the industrial and scientific age, and we should be identifying as such.

  9. Fascinating. This almost confirms my understanding that ancients in fact understand the higher forms of sciences then humans. Perhaps mercury exposure had a hand in the loss of Maya civilization but I truly don’t think that was the problem. Mayans were very very intelligent people, no different from the ancient Egyptians. To have the slightest doubt that the ancients in any way were primitive or lacked knowledge in forms of scientifical or technological ingenuity must disregard that aspect of thinking if anyone truly wants to understand and grasp exactly the degrees of how the ancients and why the ancients did what they did. Mercury first and foremost has a 3fold-4fold meaning in ancient knowledge. Mercury itself in all its ways represented something divine if not in itself a physical or material reflection of divinity itself. First to understand this mystery we must have a general idea to the extent of how the ancients perceived everything before we half hazard make silly and insulting assumptions of their ways. Mercury the planet is depicted as being one of the Gods, divine and pure. There are many beings through out culture who were represented as mercury.The sun being the eternal light that governs our solar system and in many regards is the source of our solar systems existence to some degree. Amen Rah the sun god or God being the sun. Mercury is the closest planet to the sun or the closest son to his father. Just like Jesus and His Holy Father. Ancients also knew if one were to understand the true mysteries of mercury the metal element then indeed the one would be illuminated or had advanced themselves of understanding the higher knowledge of the heavens and therefore be the Greatest amongst men. When I say heaven I’m speaking in not biblical or terms as we perceive or carelessly painted together.Jesus says Heaven is within later in the Gospels so let’s keep this in mind because it has its ties with all of this. There are 2 heavens. A physical or material and an ineffable and unknowable spiritual heaven. The cosmos and the phenomenon that governs our universe in forms of energy, matter, molecular affinities etc that our tiny bubble called earrh is surrounded by. Outside the forces and energy’s that shield this planet is considered the heavens. The ancient egytians along with many other ancient civilizations including Maya, Aztec even ancient Rome and the Greeks understood what mystics would say Magic. Sounds stupid but Magic to the ancients was defined as a science yet unknown to man or the average. There are much higher degrees of science known and unknown that are beyond the realms of understanding to the finite minds of humans but there are those whom do grasp the laws and principals of these forms of science. The ancient egytians understood by crafting a glass cylinder or container or almost light bulb with the proper amount of mercury WITHIN the glass container that mercury would be able to do something divine. The ancients understood how to change the states of matter in fact they have a full compreheñsion and very well grasping of the 7 states of matter with the 7sibdivisions of elemental energy’s for each state. With some form of frequency or vibratory mode the mercury would begin it’s change in states. Because the mercury was inclosed and no longer exposed to any outside elements it could then begin to transmute it’s state into a higher form thus becoming a plasma form. When mercury for some reason being isolated within a inclosed space changes into a plasma state it produces a glowing and luminating energy. It produces a very bright energy of light. Since being within a cylinder or bulb like container it will never extinguish or lose its energy unless the container were opened and oxygen and what ever occupies our etheric air. This can also be proven and found when Egyptologists in the early 1900’s uncovered tombs that had never been disturbed since it was sealed. Thousands of years untouched tombs have been discovered and within a light source within a mysterious glass bulb had been still producing light. As well when Roman emperor Constantines tomb or burial chambers was uncovered thousands of years later, the same thing was found in his chambers as well. So it proves the ancient Romans has this understanding as well. Mercury when it transmutes to it’s higher form of matter is has the character to illuminate and when its WITHIN a container or vessel it cannot be extinguished. It’s infinite. Hence like Jesus the eternal light that can never be extinguished or other divine beings whom are represented through the planet of mercury all share this illuminating characteristic of divinity. When a person outstrips and overcomes the fetters of THIER own inequalities and carnal impulses and thus recognises oneself past THIER physical self but realizes THIER true self that THIER own carnal senses cannot register then this is when one has grasped the laws and principals of the higher orders of nature thus graduates into a higher self and becomes illuminated within. The crystos or awakened or has the knowledge of the Gods. The fire within ignites. Hence Jesus reveals the kingdom of his heavenly Father is within. when the Christ within awakens or illuminates then everything is one. This is profound but it’s true. Through the creative nature that man reflects through his creator will show exactly where man’s unity is with the creator with the microcosm and macrocosm. He will then use his greatest gift of creating to better the world and those around him thus performing magic to show his relationship with the divine. THE MAYANS used mercury as forms of light sources of energy sources depending on the degrees of understanding of states of matter. If they understood the 7 forms of matter then I would suggest were doing things we will never know. Which makes more sense then using it to color in their coloring books and coloring on walls like children. It shows THIER unity with the higher understandings no different then the ancient Egyptians. That’s all it is but we say otherwise. Trust me you will thank me later because I know I’m 100% thank you and hope this may help

  10. I had the same thought about mercury maybe causing the demise of the Mayan. I mean they were at the top and eventually were gone. No one I know has settled this point yet. The Spaniards infected many others so why ignore deadly mercury?

  11. Steve Richardson | December 16, 2022 at 6:33 pm | Reply

    The high concentrations of mercury are just as likely to be caused by gold mining, as briefly stated above. I’ve heard reports of similar concentrations on Blewett Pass, in Washington State. An Arasta is preserved there, with concentrations of mercury around that area.

    • It is a possibility. However, despite extensive reading on gold mining, I’ve never run across anything about Mesoamerica gold mining other than suggestions that it was placer mining in streams or rivers. That is to say, that despite their having learned to distill mercury from cinnabar, I’ve never seen anything to support the idea that they learned to use mercury to improve their efficiency at extracting gold. If you are aware of such evidence, I’d appreciate having a citation.

  12. Interesting that mercury seems to be such a coveted, worshipped, and rare element to such a metallurgically primitive culture. Aside from explanations of it being used in paints, it’s very hard to imagine why it was such a coveted material to them. Why did they worship this element? They don’t seem to have been fully aware of it’s poisonous attributes, or have a use for it outside of decoration. It’s also interesting that I’ve read in many places that some people believe it is possibly an essential element in the creation of anti-gravity. My mind is open, anti-gravity is beyond us, yet I don’t doubt it’s feasibility.

    • Can you name any other metal that is liquid at room temperature? That alone would make it unique and novel.

      I’ll pass on commenting on the anti-gravity speculation.

  13. Why would Tikal have such higher contamination than other places?
    Need to research.
    Mercury vapor wrecks you.
    The leftist orthodoxy infecting elements of academia shun any notation of Christ, like garlic repels vampires, or Regan the Exorcised a crucifix.
    Childish silly commies.

  14. @Everette Gould You’d need a time machine. The change from BC/AD to BCE/CE was first proposed in the 1700s.

    Personally, I appreciate not having a religion I don’t follow being referenced every time we’re talking about a date over a thousand years or so ago, but beyond that, it does a disservice by implying that anything that happened over a mere two thousand years ago (a drop in the well so far as human history, let alone prehistory, is concerned) is somehow suddenly ancient. It draws am artificial line in a very weird place, and one that isn’t shared universally around the world. Other societies have other calendars, which can make dates confusing–beyond suddenly counting backwards! It makes it feel like everything before like 1 AD/CE took place in the cavemen days.

    Humanity’s story is a LOT older than two thousand years, and our calendar ought to reflect that, free from references to a religion a good chunk of humanity doesn’t follow.

    To my mind, we ought to go with the suggestion that we start counting from the date of the first known city, Göbekli Tepe, which dates from ten thousand years ago.

    Not only does it acknowledge a much more universally important moment in human history, and make understanding the relations of important events in history to each other much easier, there’s a very shallow learning curve: you just have to add 1 to the front of the CE date.

    So we go from the current year being 2022, to it being 12022.

    12,022 years ago (more or less), humanity built our first city.

    Think about that for a moment. Doesn’t that feel like so much more actual HISTORY between us and them? Doesn’t it make you feel more connected to them, than saying it dates from 8500 to 9000 BCE?

    Dating from the supposed birth of a mythical figure that doesn’t matter to a great deal of humanity divides us, and shortens our viewpoint.

    Dating from our first step from a rural life into cities unites us as a species.

    For more information see “A New History for Humanity: The Human Era” on YouTube

    • “… and our calendar ought to reflect that, free from references to a religion a good chunk of humanity doesn’t follow.”

      Unfortunately, going from “BC” to “CE” doesn’t really accomplish that. They both use the same start date, which just happens to be based on “a religion a good chunk of humanity doesn’t follow.”

  15. Rational Approach | December 17, 2022 at 12:10 pm | Reply

    AT LAST! A good reason to decline climbing pyramids while on vacation!

  16. Now you know what happened to them

  17. There is no such word as ‘Mayan’.
    They are called the Maya.


  19. Kenneth Bronski | December 18, 2022 at 3:26 am | Reply

    I was about to ramble on with disagreements however Clyde Spencer explained it far more eloquently then I am capable of. My first thought was yet another plot to stop or additionally regulate archeological exploration.

  20. A science person | December 18, 2022 at 7:49 am | Reply

    Smallpox and other European pathogens led to depopulation after 1492, but the Maya were depopulated prior to 900CE. The Spanish aren’t at fault for *that* one.

    The term CE dates back to the 1600s and was used by Christian scholars, too, it’s not new or about political correctness.

    Mercury poisoning doesn’t usually kill you dead, but leads to a number of ailments that seem unrelated to victims. In Europe, streets that once held many hatters and felt workers also have mercury in the archeological record.

    If Europeans and Americans vanished in the 1950s, future archeology would say we so valued white walls we poisoned ourselves with lead.

    Romans also used white lead paint, mercury-based cinnabar and vermillion pigments, antimony-based yellows, radioactive blues, greens and yellows, etc.

    If you check the soil under older bridges that were painted, you find toxic levels of lead. Very old clothing may have arsenic or other toxic dyes…
    All this really proves, or indicates, to us is that the Maya liked to paint stuff red.

    Culturally, it’d mostly effect the people making the paints and people who lived to old age.

  21. Could this be the reason why they abandoned sites? Perhaps they caught on to the toxicity issue and realized they needed to abandon in order to survive and protect later generations. Just a thought

  22. Your Maya civilization found that place. This structures don’t belong to them.

  23. The change from “BC/AD” to “BCE/CE” is in recognition of the fact that AD, Anno Domini, is an explicitly Christian reference. It means “In the Year of Our Lord,” and is expressly inappropriate when studying timeframes and/or regions where Christianity was not present, but is also dismissive and disrespectful in a world where Christianity co-exists with many other faiths. “Common Era” and “Before Common Era” is not perfect since it still predicates on the supposed birth of Jesus as an event of common importance to most if not all peoples everywhere, but it at least acknowledges the reality of a multipolar world of faiths – including that of the Maya themselves, who have survived repeated attempts at genocide at the hands of Christian mercenaries and missionaries.

  24. Was very enlightening have not heard many people think this deeply

  25. There is no such word as “Mayan”.
    An anthropologist would know that these were/are the Maya people.

  26. I have read that mercury may have been used to extract gold since it is soluble in mercury and can be extracted upon vaporizing mercury/gold solution. If this is the case, can toxicity created this way account for added health impacts, assuming the Spanish subjected Mayans to mine gold in this way to export back to Spain.

  27. I think Tyler’s comment is serious minus the source/topic of source used, it does hold weight.

    I was thinking before ever getting to his comment that people use to insult you by calling you a paint chip eater, referring to the mercury added to paint before we knew it to be toxic. They said this because the poor hungry kids who had little to eat, ate dried paint chips to ease their hunger. Consequently, it also lowered their IQ from mercury poisoning during their developmental years. To say mercury of various forms is relatively harmless, just sounds all types of wrong considering we know what it has done to people. The mercury was only a percent of that paints makeup and still did all that damage.

  28. Mr. Hicks, what on earth are you going on about?. You seem like a raving lunatic who decided to study every religion all at ones with little rest. We know why Egyptians had mercury in tombs. It was to follow up the curse of the pharaohs. You have to crawl to get into many of the tombs and mercury was placed where one would have to crawl. Grave robbers would die from the poisoning and there’s your curse of the pharaoh. They used it for light by putting it in glass bottles? We use to do that with old thermometers and they never created unending light. I usually don’t say this but I think you need a break from Jesus my friend. Go watch some basketball games, maybe a bit of sudoku and clear your mind of all that. Then get back with Jesus but leave the rest out.

  29. Bravo Michael Hicks, that was spectacular!

  30. Christopher Patton | December 21, 2022 at 3:17 pm | Reply

    The Maya probably use lakes of mercury and other metals for it’s magnetic ability to float things or move heavy rocks into their places.

  31. So I’m just going to say this might be off topic. Tesla said to understand the universe you must think of energy, vibration and frequency. His wardenclyffe tower had grounding rods that went to the bedrock. Inorder for the tower to transmit electricity you must ring the earth. Now if he and the Egyptians and all other ancient civilizations had ways for ringing the earth. Wouldn’t those vibrations impact the tectonic plates. I mean there have been many lost civilizations some plunged into the oceans and other land would rise depending on the the plates movement. Just recently a long stair case appeared near the pyramids. I’ve read that the stair case goes several meters deep under ground to a hidden ocean beneath the surface of Giza. Also adding to the possibility of the pyramids being a power source. After all the interior of the pyramids are piezoelectric granite. And the central construction is said to have expanded about an inch from its original position. Granite under pressure creates electricity. And the aquifer that runs under the great pyramid further adds to the possibility. The pyramids are much bigger than wardenclyffe tower. And the evidence of sphinx and the water erosion could also add to the thought of if the pyramid were able to ring the earth I would think that the plates could also be affected by this. I don’t know this is just a thought…

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