Did the Mayan civilization destroy itself? Scientists have pinpointed the fatal thirst of a famous civilization

Dmytro IvancheskulLife
The pyramids are one of the most famous symbols of the Mayan civilization

The Maya civilization, which was one of the most advanced in the ancient world, is believed to have fallen victim to a thirst for mercury, perceived as a divine metal. Numerous archaeological studies confirm that mercury was widespread among the Maya and was even used as a paint.

This is stated in an article in the scientific publication Frontiers in Environmental Science. Mercury is a liquid silvery material that even now can be fascinating to look at, despite our knowledge of its toxicity.

In ancient times, people were so fascinated by mercury that they called it quicksilver, which means "living silver" in archaic language. We now know that prolonged exposure to mercury can lead to serious health problems, but the ancient Mayans had no idea how dangerous their fascination was.

The Mayan civilization existed for almost 1500 years on the territory of the modern Yucatan Peninsula and the countries of Guatemala and Belize. It was a very advanced civilization, distinguished by unique art, striking architecture, sophisticated writing and complex religion. Already in the 10th century the Maya underwent a sharp decline due to civil wars, overpopulation, drought and environmental degradation, and later the Spanish conquistadors destroyed the remnants of the society.

But modern archaeologists have found evidence that the crack in this civilization may have been a thirst for mercury, and mercury sulfide, known as cinnabar. It is cinnabar that is very common among archaeological finds. Archaeologists have unearthed numerous artifacts made from it and evidence that the Maya made extensive use of cinnabar-based paints.

Although pure mercury is a rarer find among Maya heritage, scientists have discovered a vessel containing about 500 cubic centimeters of mercury at an underwater site in Guatemala.

Mercury was so common among the Maya that large amounts of the toxic element have seriously contaminated many sites. Thus, of the ten sites examined for mercury, in six, its level exceeded the toxic threshold.

As Big Think notes, in 2020, a team from the University of Cincinnati found toxic levels of mercury in two reservoirs in the center of the ancient city of Tikal, home to between 45,000 and 62,000 inhabitants. They hypothesized that the mercury entered the water when rains washed vermilion-based paint off the buildings.

Long-term exposure to mercury is known to cause muscle weakness, poor coordination, skin rashes and problems with memory, speech, hearing and vision. This element also inhibits certain enzymes necessary for proper neurological function.

Evidence of mercury has also been found in the remains of Mayan skeletons. In this case, the researchers note, it accumulated while the dead were still alive. One of the last rulers of Tikal could suffer from metabolic disease as a result of chronic mercury poisoning.

At the same time, scientists do not know how the Maya extracted such an amount of elemental mercury. It is known that the extraction of cinnabar was carried out near different settlements, but no archaeological evidence has been found that the Maya produced elemental mercury by smelting cinnabar. Moreover, the Maya civilization was located far from known, pure sources of this element. It is possible that both cinnabar and mercury came from the same trade routes that the Maya used to obtain jade and obsidian.

Earlier OBOZREVATEL also told about the fact that in the jungles of Mexico found a lost Mayan city.

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