Thanks to chemical and microscopic analysis, researchers have revealed the presence of a potentially fatal compound in an Inca tomb that was modernised in Chile towards the end of the 1970s. Derived from mercury, and therefore particularly toxic, cinnabar was in fact covering the fabrics used to wrap the two corpses discovered.
Superstitions about colours are not wrong… Black cats bring bad fortune, and green, apparently, is bad luck for the theatre. Red, on the other hand, doesn’t appear to scare anyone. Big mistake! Some pigments which give its colour can be fatal.
These murderous particles get their deadly powers from the mineral they come from: cinnabar. The mercury mineral was used centuries ago to colour all sorts of concoctions and even sometimes clothes. An example of the use, as obscure as it is surprising, of this dangerous pigment has just been revealed following a study published in the Archaeometry magazine.
The origins of the discovery go back to 1976. That year, archaeologists modernised two Inca mummies on the Cerro Esmeralda burial site, in Chile. Dating back to the period between 1399 and 1475, the corpses apparently belonged to two young women, one in her teens and the other in her twenties, discovered in the foetal position.
A ritual sacrifice
According to what archaeologists know about the period, the two bodies would have been embalmed and then buried following an Inca ritual ceremony. A sacrifice over the course of which numerous objects were also buried alongside the deceased. In total, there are no less than 104 archaeological artefacts which were discovered by specialists. Among them, a multitude of precious objects but also, more surprisingly, a mysterious red powder covering the sheets.
'The colour was normally produced in the Andes with haematite,' an iron ore known for its reddish colour, the researchers explain in their publication. But this time, it’s definitely the dangerous cinnabar that the scientists have had the surprise of discovering over the course of chemical and microscopic analysis that has been carried out.
'The new chemical analysis that has been obtained shows that cinnabar was present in the mummies’ clothes in Cerro Esmeralda. This toxic material is a particular and curious funerary offering in north Chile,' the researchers reveal. Discovery of the pigment in the Chilean tombs signifies the first proof of its ritualistic use by old civilisations who once lived in the north of the country.
An intentional use, no doubt
The researchers are still unaware of the origins of the cinnabar found on the Chilean mummies. Currently, there is only one known archaeological source of cinnabar at the time of the Inca Empire and this is found in the Huancavelica mine, north of Lima, far from the site where the two mummies were discovered. Likewise, the social and ritual function of the role is also yet to be determined,
'In fact, it is possible that the Incas were conscious of the danger posed by breathing in cinnabar, and they may have deliberately scattered cinnabar in their ceremonial burial sites in order to dissuade people from pillaging the tombs,' suggest the researchers. These are the scientists, who, despite having different intentions, expose themselves to the same risks as potential violators of the tombs.
Breathing in cinnabar, even centuries after its spread, can indeed have large consequences.
'It can provoke a who series of health problems, by effecting the nervous system, muscles, and digestive system, among others, and even death in cases of extreme exposure,' warn the researchers. After the legendary curse of Tutankhamun, now the Incan mummies are the ones to fear…