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Mercury Pollution's Oldest Traces Found in Peru


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Bianca
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« on: May 19, 2009, 04:38:36 pm »



             






In an undated photo, University of Alberta geologist Colin Cooke hikes in the northern Peruvian region where he and colleagues uncovered evidence that large-scale mercury mining in the Andes stretches back as far back as 1400 B.C.



Photograph by
Alberto Reyes
« Last Edit: May 19, 2009, 04:40:11 pm by Bianca » Report Spam   Logged

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Bianca
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« Reply #1 on: May 19, 2009, 04:41:21 pm »









                                     Mercury Pollution's Oldest Traces Found in Peru






John Roach
for National Geographic magazine
May 18, 2009
Demand for the mercury compound vermilion was strong enough to support a large-scale mercury mining industry in the Andes as far back as 1400 B.C., according to a new study (see pictures from the expedition).

A bright red pigment, vermilion was used in ancient Andean rituals and is frequently found adorning gold and silver ceremonial objects in ancient burials of kings and nobles in South America.

The find extends the record of New World mercury production back by more than 2,000 years and provides the first evidence of preindustrial mercury pollution, said geologist Colin Cooke, a Ph.D. student at Canada's University of Alberta and lead author of the study.

Mercury, a toxic heavy metal used to extract silver and gold from ore in a process called amalgamation, comes from the mineral cinnabar, which is crushed to make vermilion pigment.

Historical records kept by colonists from Spain, which ruled Peru from the 16th to 19th centuries, show that, by the late 16th century, liquid mercury was widely used to extract silver—one of the colonial economy's mainstays—from ore in the Andes.

Cooke and his colleagues initially had hoped to confirm only this colonial history of mercury mining by analyzing pollution in sediment cores they took from lakebeds near old mines in Huancavelica, Peru, a city of 40,000 located 140 miles (225 kilometers) southeast of Lima, and the world's second largest mercury deposit after Almadén, Spain.

Instead, Cooke said, "Once we radiocarbon-dated the cores, we realized it went back many, many centuries—a few millennia even—and that was pretty shocking. The idea that they were mining there as early as 1400 B.C. had never really been suggested before."

His team's findings are detailed in a paper to be published on May 19 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration helped fund the research.
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Bianca
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« Reply #2 on: May 19, 2009, 04:42:19 pm »







Rise of Complex Society



Increasing levels of mercury pollution in sediments from two nearby lakes indicated the ancient mercury mining. The mining had started long before the Chavín culture—which Cooke described as "the cradle of complex Andean culture"—peaked, between 800 B.C. and 400 B.C. in central Peru.

"The traditional thinking has been that large-scale mining and metallurgy only begins after you get the emergence of large-scale societies that have social stratification and people can specialize in different crafts," Cooke said.

The new study suggests the reverse: that both mining and metallurgy might spur the rise of complex society.

Preferential access to exotic goods such as cinnabar and gold would have supported the rise of early leaders, Cooke said. 

Discovered in Peru, Official Claims Yale University archaeologist Richard Burger said Cooke's research supports his hypothesis that trade in cinnabar contributed to the rise of the Chavín culture.

Since the Chavín herded llamas, Burger said, they would have been able to haul vermilion throughout the Andes.

"This [new research] was an independent body of evidence that never occurred to me, and it independently confirms the hypothesis," Burger said.

The Chavín, and later the Inca, covered themselves in vermilion for ceremonial purposes, Burger said. The pigment was also used to decorate gold objects such as burial masks. 
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Bianca
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« Reply #3 on: May 19, 2009, 04:43:31 pm »









Mercury Pollution



The three-millennia-long mercury mining tradition at Huancavelica—including a 450-year colonial history that earned the mine its nickname Mina de la Muerte (Mine of Death)—has likely left behind a poisonous legacy in this central Peruvian highland region, Cooke believes.

"We haven't done any direct measurements of mercury in fish or blood-mercury levels in the residents or anything, but I would suspect it is probably one of the more polluted regions in the world," Cooke said.

Today the known mercury pollution from centuries past "should be of some concern," the University of Michigan's Nriagu said.

According to Nriagu, mercury emissions averaged about 600 tons per year during Peru's colonial period, when mercury was used in silver amalgamation. That amount is "approximately equivalent to current emissions from China," Cooke notes in his new study.

Further research will be needed to determine the environmental effects of ancient Peru's obsession with this toxic substance.
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