They discover a possible cause of the abandonment of Tikal, the great center of the Mayan civilization

They discover a possible cause of the abandonment of Tikal, the great center of the Mayan civilization



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Two of the largest water reservoirs in the Mayan city of Tikal, in Guatemala, were contaminated with toxic substances in the last stages of their existence, which could have caused their abandonment in the 9th century, asserts a team of archaeologists from the United States. USA and Guatemala.

The Temple and Palace reserves, located in what was once the center of the city, with an estimated population of more than 70,000 people, were contaminated by mercury, phosphate and cyanobacteria that produce dangerous toxins. Their concentrations increased in the Late Classic and Terminal Classic periods (600-830 and 830-890, respectively), which coincided with a series of severe droughts.

They have a long dry season. During part of the year, it rains and is humid. The rest of the year, it is really dry and it hardly rains. So they had trouble finding water, "says one of the researchers, David Lentz, in a statement from the University of Cincinnati (USA).

As for the sources of these substances, they conclude that they were produced by the inhabitants of Tikal themselves. Mercury, for example, was part of cinnabar, one of the pigments most used by the Mayans. And as for organic contamination, it was due to the absence of garbage collection.

“Mayan cooks apparently dumped food waste in front of the kitchen, as evidenced by the presence of an adjacent garbage dump. During the rainy seasons, the water would have carried the effluent from this garbage pile directly into the tank, ”the scientists say.

Health effects

Pollution could seriously affect the health of water consumers, among whom were several representatives of the city's elite.

“The water that the rulers of Tikal and their elite entourage drank and cooked with almost certainly came from the reservoirs of the Palace and the Temple. […] The polluted waters would have had a negative impact on the health of the community, especially on the ruling elite, and could have compromised their ability to lead effectively. Although the physiological mechanisms are not clear, there is a significant interrelation between chronic exposure to mercury and aspects of the metabolic syndrome, obesity in particular, ”the researchers detail. They warn that one of Tikal's rulers during the Terminal Classic period, known as the "Dark Sun," "was notably obese," a condition that could have stemmed from that syndrome.

In addition, the proliferation of cyanobacteria would have made the water in the contaminated reservoirs practically undrinkable.

The water must have looked nasty. It must have tasted unpleasant. […] No one would have wanted to drink that water, ”says Kenneth Tankersle, who also participated in the study.

"The conversion of the central reserves of Tikal from places that support life to places that induce disease would have practically and symbolically helped to cause the abandonment of this magnificent city", conclude the scientists.

The article was published last Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports.


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