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Cinnabar powder on human bones and beads in Valencina, site of Copper Age Mercury abuse.	Source: Álvaro Fernández Flores/ Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory

Copper Age Settlement Shows Evidence of Accidental Ritual Mercury Abuse


Getting high off toxic solvents and chemicals to induce mind-altering effects is a public health concern today. But dial back 5,000 years, in the Iberian Peninsula, and groups of women adorned in immaculate ceremonial attire would participate in a ritual dance before an audience, inhaling a vibrant red powder, or mixing it in an elixir. This powder, derived from the mineral cinnabar, induced a fevered trance accompanied by tremors and delirium, and its users visited different astral planes. The dark side of this tradition was it necessitated a lifetime of dangerous and lethal mercury abuse.

What the users were unlikely to be aware of was that the ‘trip’ was a byproduct of the toxic metal mercury, today one of the most widely banned substances by public health departments all over the world. This usage and more have been wonderfully documented in a study published in late 2023 in the Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory.

A Lifetime of Mercury Abuse

“Western medicine has basically banned mercury … [like] public health enemy No. 1,” says Leonardo García Sanjuán, the study’s lead author and an archaeologist at the University of Seville in Spain. “But the truth is, the history of the relationship of humans with mercury has been quite complex.”

Repeated exposure to these rituals led to the accumulation of mercury in the women's bodily tissues over their lifetimes. Millennia later, archaeological analysis revealed significantly elevated levels of mercury in the bones of these women and others from their community, far surpassing modern health tolerances.

It appears that at the Copper Age settlement of Valencina, between approximately 2900 and 2650 BC, ritual leaders purposefully ingested mercury-rich cinnabar for ceremonial or magical purposes. Meanwhile, other community members may have inadvertently consumed it while working with the pigment or through environmental contamination.

Cinnabar powder sprayed on Structure 10.049. at Valencina. (José Peinado Cucarella; drawing: Miriam Lucianez Triviño/ Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory)

Cinnabar powder sprayed on Structure 10.049. at Valencina. (José Peinado Cucarella; drawing: Miriam Lucianez TriviñoJournal of Archaeological Method and Theory)

As sufferers of acrodynia—medically termed chronic mercury poisoning—the people of Valencina likely experienced hair loss and developed rashes, along with memory lapses, fatigue, and potential kidney failure. Both their stillness and smooth movement would have been hindered by tremors, twitches, and balance issues.

Mercury can severely damage the immune, digestive, and nervous systems, causing symptoms such as tremors, memory loss, headaches, and partial blindness. Those who inhaled powder or vapors containing mercury may have suffered pneumonitis, resulting in inflamed lungs, according to a Smithsonian Magazine report.

The Healing Art in Prehistoric Times, by Ernest Board. (Wellcome Trust / CC BY 4.0)

The Healing Art in Prehistoric Times, by Ernest Board. (Wellcome Trust / CC BY 4.0)

Cinnabar: A History of Beauty, Art, Death

Despite the risks of debilitation or death, the people of Valencina, along with societies worldwide spanning at least 10,000 years to the present day, utilized mercury-rich cinnabar for beauty, magic, and traditional medicine.

Typically found in volcanic or hydrothermal environments, cinnabar forms through the union of mercury and sulfur when near-boiling fluids flow through rock cracks. Historically, people ground and mixed cinnabar with oil or egg yolk to create paint. In various regions, including Mexico, the Andes, and Iberia, ancient inhabitants applied the pigment to graves and corpses, such as the Mayan Red Queen at Palenque, Mexico, giving them a striking red hue and slowing decomposition.

The Mayan Red Queen Skull, Palenque. (INAH)

The Mayan Red Queen Skull, Palenque. (INAH)

Aristocrats of the Roman Empire adorned their walls with cinnabar-derived paint known as "Pompeian red." Renaissance artists in Europe referred to the pigment as "vermilion" and incorporated it into grand portraits and religious scenes, such as Titian's  Assumption of the Virgin.

While scientists have extensively studied mercury types in foods and industrial products, research on the health impacts of geologic forms like cinnabar remains limited. Cultures in the Caribbean, South Africa, and Tibet still utilize cinnabar for its perceived magical effects, while traditional Chinese medicine has employed cinnabar mixed with herbs and animal parts to treat various ailments for centuries.

Valencina and Cinnabar: A Toxic Love?

In the ancient site of Valencina, a 20-minute drive from Seville in southwest Spain, cinnabar played a significant role. Throughout the twentieth century, archaeologists excavated its ruins intermittently, often during rescue operations related to construction projects. Valencina likely functioned as a sanctuary where people from across the region gathered for periodic ceremonies, discussions, and funerals.

One particularly lavish tomb contained an individual known as the Ivory Lady, buried between 2900 and 2800 BC, alongside exotic items such as an African elephant tusk and a clay platter bearing chemical traces of wine and cannabis. Another stone chamber, built a century later, contained the remains of 20 individuals, including oracle-like women dressed in ornate beaded garb and others displaying signs of worn-down, arthritic vertebrae, shoulders, and legs.

Both graves are considered exceptional in the context of the European Copper Age. In addition to the rich artifacts, cinnabar powder was found abundantly in these graves, covering the bodies, artifacts, and some interior surfaces! All leading scientific research at this site show that the mercury concentrations at Valencina stood out, significantly higher than those at most other sites.

Cinnabar powder on human bones and beads at the Valencina site. (Antonio Acedo García/Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory)

Cinnabar powder on human bones and beads at the Valencina site. (Antonio Acedo García/Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory)

At Valencina, 65 percent of the measured humans had bone mercury levels exceeding the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's safe threshold of 1 microgram per gram of hair. Some individuals surpassed values of 100, with two reaching nearly 480. Even some animals showed double or triple-digit mercury levels! This widespread mercury exposure is considered remarkable by García Sanjuán.

For reasons yet unclear, Valencina's cinnabar use—and its regional significance—waned after about 250 years. During its peak, the site attracted people from dispersed areas to gather, build monuments, celebrate special occasions, and honor the dead. For Copper Age Iberians, central places like Valencina were vital hubs of social life, holding together the fabric of society.

Top image: Cinnabar powder on human bones and beads in Valencina, site of Copper Age Mercury abuse. Source: Álvaro Fernández FloresJournal of Archaeological Method and Theory

By Sahir Pandey


Alex, B. 2024.  Ancient Iberians Ingested Red Dust Loaded With Mind-Altering Mercury. Available at:

Sanjuan, L.G.,  et al. 2023.  Beautiful, Magic, Lethal: a Social Perspective of Cinnabar Use and Mercury Exposure at the Valencina Copper Age Mega-site (Spain). Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory. Available at:

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I am a graduate of History from the University of Delhi, and a graduate of Law, from Jindal University, Sonepat. During my study of history, I developed a great interest in post-colonial studies, with a focus on Latin America. I... Read More

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