Preindustrial Pollution Pestered Peru
When you think about air pollution, you may picture smokestacks belching out noxious black clouds or the gas-guzzling SUVs crowding the highways. But different cultures found different ways to foul the atmosphere long before the industrial revolution.
The latest example of preindustrial pollution comes from Peru almost half a millennium ago. To get a read on what humans have been ejecting into the air, researchers pulled ice cores from Quelccaya, a glacier high in the Andes. The samples provide an annual archive of elements that have been circulating in the atmosphere stretching back to the year 793.
Analyzing the core, the researchers found that prior to about 1532 the ice harbored only a sprinkling of dust and ash, remnants of the occasional volcanic eruption. But at about the 1540 mark—corresponding with the start of colonial mining and metallurgy—the cores suddenly contain chromium, molybdenum, antimony, and lead. The finding is in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. [Chiara Uglietta et al, Widespread pollution of the South American atmosphere predates the industrial revolution by 240 y]
Of course, these waste products are a proverbial drop in the bucket compared to the toxins we put out today. Because we’ve developed ways to pollute that people back then could have only dreamed of.