, Volume 40, Issue 1, pp 18–25 | Cite as

Pre-Colombian Mercury Pollution Associated with the Smelting of Argentiferous Ores in the Bolivian Andes

  • Colin A. Cooke
  • Prentiss H. Balcom
  • Charles Kerfoot
  • Mark B. Abbott
  • Alexander P. Wolfe


The development of the mercury (Hg) amalgamation process in the mid-sixteenth century triggered the onset of large-scale Hg mining in both the Old and New Worlds. However, ancient Hg emissions associated with amalgamation and earlier mining efforts remain poorly constrained. Using a geochemical time-series generated from lake sediments near Cerro Rico de Potosí, once the world’s largest silver deposit, we demonstrate that pre-Colonial smelting of Andean silver ores generated substantial Hg emissions as early as the twelfth century. Peak sediment Hg concentrations and fluxes are associated with smelting and exceed background values by approximately 20-fold and 22-fold, respectively. The sediment inventory of this early Hg pollution more than doubles that associated with extensive amalgamation following Spanish control of the mine (1574–1900 AD). Global measurements of [Hg] from economic ores sampled world-wide indicate that the phenomenon of Hg enrichment in non-ferrous ores is widespread. The results presented here imply that indigenous smelting constitutes a previously unrecognized source of early Hg pollution, given naturally elevated [Hg] in economic silver deposits.


Mercury Andes Smelting Amalgamation Colonial 



We are grateful to journal reviewers and the editor for their time and efforts. Funding for this research was provided by the US National Science Foundation, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and the National Geographic Society Committee for Research and Exploration.


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Copyright information

© Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Colin A. Cooke
    • 1
  • Prentiss H. Balcom
    • 2
  • Charles Kerfoot
    • 3
  • Mark B. Abbott
    • 4
  • Alexander P. Wolfe
    • 5
  1. 1.School of GeosciencesUniversity of SydneySydneyAustralia
  2. 2.Department of Marine SciencesUniversity of ConnecticutGrotonUSA
  3. 3.Department of Geological and Mining Engineering and SciencesMichigan Technological UniversityHoughtonUSA
  4. 4.Department of Geology and Planetary ScienceUniversity of PittsburghPittsburghUSA
  5. 5.Department of Earth and Atmospheric SciencesUniversity of AlbertaEdmontonCanada

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