Toxic levels of a pollutant commonly associated with the wastes of modern industry have been uncovered amid the most unlikely of archaeological sites. Long before conquistadors from far-off lands introduced the decay of war and disease, Maya cultures were dusting the soils of their urban centers with the heavy metal mercury.

A pyramid at the Maya city of Tikal.

The element’s levels are so great in some areas, researchers are being advised to gear up to save their health.

“Mercury pollution in the environment is usually found in contemporary urban areas and industrial landscapes,” says Duncan Cook, a geoarchaeologist at the Australian Catholic University and lead author of a review into the environmental legacy of the Maya.

Together with a team of researchers from the US and UK, Cook reviewed data sets collected from 10 Classic Period Maya dig sites and their surrounds that included environmental measurements of mercury levels.

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