Mercury as a marker of the Maya Anthropocene in lowland Central America

Authors: Duncan Cook*, Australian Catholic University, Timothy Beach, University of Texas at Austin, Sheryl Luzzadder-Beach, University of Texas at Austin, Richard Terry, Brigham Young University
Topics: Paleoenvironmental Change, Soils, Geomorphology
Keywords: Mercury, Ancient Maya, Anthropocene, pollution, Central America, soil, sediments
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/10/2018
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:40 AM
Room: Napoleon B2, Sheraton 3rd Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

Detailed geochemical studies across the Maya lowlands of Central America have revealed elevated mercury (Hg) in soils and sediments that date from the first millennium of the Common Era (CE). Mercury pollution has now been recorded in a range of contexts across multiple Maya archaeological sites, a finding that appears incongruous when we consider the absence of archaeological evidence of Maya industry or technological capable of significant heavy metal pollution of these landscapes in antiquity. This paper presents a detailed analysis of the extent, chronology and magnitude of anthropogenic mercury in the landscapes of the ancient Maya. With very few geological sources of mercury in the Maya world, and the considerable importance of liquid (native) and solid mercury (cinnabar) to the ancient Maya, we examine the possible sources, pathways and environmental impact of ancient Maya mercury. We propose that mercury is a robust human impact proxy, due to its singular anthropogenic signal and persistence in soils and sediments over long timespans. Furthermore, our research suggests that mercury is a region-wide marker of ancient Maya activity, and alongside other soil physical and chemical proxies and indices, marks the Anthropocene in the Maya lowlands of Central America.

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