Human bones tell the story of atmospheric mercury and lead exposure at the edge of Roman World

Olalla López-Costasa, b, c, Malin Kylanderd, e, Nadine Mattiellif, Noemi Álvarez-Fernándeza, Marta Pérez-Rodríguezg, Tim Mighallh, Richard Bindleri, and Antonio Martínez coritzasa

aEcoPast (GI-1553), Facultade de Bioloxía, Universidade de Santiago de Compostela, 15782, Spain
bArchaeological Research Laboratory, Stockholm University, Wallenberglaboratoriet, SE-10691 Stockholm, Sweden
cLaboratorio de Antropología Física, Facultad de Medicina, Universidad de Granada, Granada 18012, Spain
dDept. Geological Sciences, Stockholm University, Stockholm, Sweden
eThe Bolin Centre for Climate Research, Stockholm University, Stockholm, Sweden
fLaboratoire G-Time, DGES, Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB), 50 (CP 160/02), Av FD Roosevelt, 1050 Brussels, Belgium
gInstitut für Geoökologie, Abt. Umweltgeochemie, Technische Universität Braunschweig, Braunschweig, Langer Kamp, 19C, 38106 Braunschweig, Germany
hSchool of Geosciences, University of Aberdeen, Aberdeen, UK
iDept. Ecology and Environmental Science, Umeå University, 901 87 Umeå, Sweden

Atmospheric metal pollution is a major health concern whose roots pre-date industrialization. This study pertains the analyses of ancient human skeletons and compares them with natural archives to trace historical environmental exposure at the edge of the Roman Empire in NW Iberia. The novelty of our approach relies on the combination of mercury, lead and lead isotopes. We found over a 700-year period that rural Romans incorporated two times more mercury and lead into their bones than post-Romans inhabiting the same site, independent of sex or age. Atmospheric pollution sources contributed on average 57% (peaking at 85%) of the total lead incorporated into the bones in Roman times, which decreased to 24% after the decline of Rome. These values and accompanying changes in lead isotopic composition mirror changes in atmospheric Pb deposition recorded in local peatlands. Thus, skeletons are a time-transgressive archive reflecting contaminant exposure..

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