Researchers from the University of Cincinnati found toxic levels of pollution in four central reservoirs in Tikal, an ancient Maya city that dates back to the third century B.C. in what is now northern Guatemala.
UC’s findings suggest droughts in the ninth century likely contributed to the depopulation and eventual abandonment of the city.
“The conversion of Tikal’s central reservoirs from life-sustaining to sickness-inducing places would have both practically and symbolically helped to bring about the abandonment of this magnificent city,” the study concluded.
A geochemical analysis found that two reservoirs nearest the city palace and temple contained extremely high and toxic levels of mercury that UC researchers traced back to a pigment the Maya used to adorn buildings, clayware and other goods. During rainstorms, mercury in the pigment leached into the reservoirs where it settled in layers of sediment over the years.
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Photo: UC researchers Nicholas Dunning, left, Vernon Scarborough and David Lentz set up equipment to take sediment samples during their field research at Tikal. CREDIT: Liwy Grazioso Sierra