Peruvian ice cap harbours evidence of conquistadors’ avarice

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – After vanquishing the Inca Empire with superior weapons and a touch of treachery, the Spanish conquistadors sought to satisfy their lust for riches by forcing multitudes of native people to toil in silver mines in dire conditions that claimed many lives.

Scientists yesterday described evidence of this bitter chapter of South American history preserved deep in an ice cap in the Peruvian Andes in the form of residue from the relentless clouds of metallic dust spewed from the mines starting in the 16th century. The mountaintop mines of Potosí in Bolivia were the world’s richest silver source.

While the Incas had long extracted silver, a new processing method introduced by the Spanish in 1572 greatly increased production even as it belched lead dust and other pollutants into the atmosphere. The pollution blew over the entire region, including the Quelccaya Ice Cap some 500 miles (800 km) northwest in southern Peru.

The Spanish refining process involved pulverizing silver ore, containing both lead and silver, into powder, which sent metallic dust into the atmosphere. The powder was mixed with mercury. The silver was separated by heating the mixture to allow the mercury to evaporate.

Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the scientists said they drilled into the glacier at an altitude of about 18,000 feet (5,600 metres) to learn about past air pollution.

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