May 18, 2009
--Laguna Warmicocha (pictured), high in the Peruvian
Andes, was the base camp for researchers studying pollutants in nearby lakebed sediments. The team discovered that mercury mining in the region dates back to 1400 B.C., much longer ago than previously believed, according to a study released today and funded in part by the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration
The finding suggests demand for vermilion, a bright red pigment made from crushed cinnabar--the source of mercury--may have helped nurture the rise of the Chavin, the earliest complex and stratified society to take root in the Andes. (Read full story.
Previously, researchers had thought mercury mining began when Spanish colonists arrived in the 16th century and used liquid mercury to extract silver from ore.
(National Geographic News is part of the National Geographic Society.)--John Roach
Photograph by Alberto Reyes