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Man-Made Air Pollution Started With the Incas

Feb 10, 2015 03:24 PM EST
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Man-made air pollution is a global phenomenon that we are currently dealing with today, but this has long been an issue, starting way back when with the Incas.

During the 16th century, when the Spanish Empire conquered South America, Inca inhabitants were forced to refine silver in mines atop the Potosí mountain, in what is now present-day Bolivia. And thanks to the Spanish introducing new technology to boost silver production, clouds of metal-rich dust were carried into Peru, remnants of this pollution later to be discovered in an Andean ice cap.

"There is a long pre-industrial history of mining in Peru and Bolivia," study author Paolo Gabrielli from Ohio State University, who made the discovery in 2003, told Live Science.

"Our study demonstrates that since the colonial time, mining and metallurgic activities performed by the Spanish did also have an impact on very distant areas," he added.

The majority of people might have assumed that the Industrial Revolution sparked the dawn of man-made emissions and global warming; however, this new study shows that anthropogenic effects on the world date back long before then.

According to new research published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Gabrielli and his colleagues were studying climatic changes in South America when they pulled a long ice core from the Quelccaya Ice Cap. To their surprise, they found bits of lead with a chemical signature that traced back to the silver mines of Potosí. The core provided the first detailed record of widespread man-made air pollution in South America before the Industrial Revolution.

"Until now, what we knew about pre-industrial atmospheric pollution was limited to the Northern Hemisphere," Gabrielli said.

The success of the mines and subsequent pollution can be attributed to the greed of the Spanish. In 1572, they introduced the refining process called amalgamation to speed up silver production. The technology involved grinding lead-rich silver ore into a powder and mixing it with mercury. Consequentially, clouds of dust were released into the atmosphere, traveling as far as 500 miles away into Peru.

Potosí later became known as the largest source of silver in the world. By the 17th century, about 13,500 indigenous people were working the mines under a system of mandatory labor. (Scroll to read on...)

"The fact that we can detect pollution in ice from a pristine high altitude location is indicative of the continental significance of this deposition," Gabrielli explained in a news release. "Only a significant source of pollution could travel so far, and affect the chemistry of the snow on a remote place like Quelccaya."

And this pollution problem has since become worldwide. For instance, Asia's air pollution is so bad that it's changing weather and climate around the globe. In addition, air pollution is reportedly linked to irregular heartbeat and blood clots.

While the level of pollution in the colonial era, during which the Incas lived, was indeed significant, it still is no match for levels that we saw in the 20th century.

Some scientists think humans have left such a lasting mark on the planet - via fossil fuel production, deforestation and agricultural practices - that we are now technically living in a new epoch, dubbed the Anthropocene.

The starting point for this new age, however, is fiercely debated. Some insist it began with the Industrial Revolution, while others argue the detonation of the first atomic bomb kicked off the Anthropocene.

Regardless, there's no doubt that humans are drastically altering the Earth, and it all started - at least in South America - with the Incas and some silver.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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