Toxic Signature of Poisoning in 5,000-Year-Old Bones Is Oldest Evidence of Its Kind

The bones of people buried in Spain and Portugal have been found to have evidence of mercury poisoning.

According to The World Health Organization, exposure to heavy metal can cause toxic effects on the body. Mercury is considered one of the top 10 chemicals of major health concern by the WHO.

People are most exposed to mercury when they eat certain fish or shellfish, though the levels are often low, according to the WHO. Mercury exposure was common in the olden days.

Photos of dazzling mineral specimen.

The researchers analyzed the human bones from 23 different archaeological sites in Spain and Portugal. The bones were from people who lived in various time periods over the course of 5,000 years.

The arm bone between the shoulder and the elbow was found to have high levels of mercury, levels that would not have been caused by diet or decomposition after death.

The WHO considers normal levels of mercury in human hair to be 1 or 2 parts per million.

According to the statement, the researchers believe that the high levels of mercury were caused by exposure to cinnabar, a toxic mercury sulfide mineral that is used to make paint. One of the largest cinnabar mines in the world is in Spain.

Around 7,000 years ago, people started exploiting the cinnabar trove. The highest levels of mercury were found in the remains of the late Neolithic to the middle Copper Age, which was a transition between the Neolithic and Bronze Age.
The authors of the study said that cinnabar had become a highly symbolic, probably sacred substance, which was sought after, traded and extensively used in a variety of rituals and social practices.
In tombs dating back to this time period, cinnabar powder was used to paint chambers, decorate figurines, and even spread over the dead. It's possible that people could have accidentally or deliberately eaten large amounts of mercury-filled cinnabar, according to the statement.
The use of cinnabar decreased by the end of the Copper Age and the start of the Bronze Age.

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The article was published by Live Science. The original article can be found here.