This illustration from an early Mayan codex perplexed scholars for years.
Episode 38: In which Pliny and Frontinus discuss mercury and Jared Diamond, and Edward Gibbons is the best argument against his own collapse theory.
[SETTING: Underworld Scientific Academy]
PLINY THE ELDER, ANCIENT SCIENTIFIC WRITER AND TERRIBLE VULCANOLOGIST: Good news, everyone! The mortals have finally determined the fattest bear!…I say, Frontinus, Old Boy, you seem a little down in the dumps. What’s the matter?
FRONTINUS, ANCIENT ENGINEER AND AQUEDUCT AUTHORITY: It’s the mortal news. You’ll never guess what they’re suggesting now about the ancient world.
PLINY THE ELDER: That it was somehow much better than the modern world, despite being equally made up of humans?
FRONTINUS: No, that we were all a bunch of idiots and poisoned ourselves through our infrastructure, dooming our societies to oblivion.
PLINY THE ELDER: (immediately regretting this conversation) Oh, that again. Look, Frontinus, I know you get upset about this…
FRONTINUS: This time it’s the Mayans and mercury poisoning. The mortals have discovered that a lot of Mayan cities are now contaminated by mercury run-off from the cinnabar used in elite decorating and ceremonies. And they’re implying this might explain the downfall of Mayan cities, like they all suffered from mercury poisoning to the point of social collapse.
PLINY THE ELDER: Who are the Mayans? Do they live near the Scythians? I’m pretty sure everyone lives near the Scythians.
FRONTINUS: Like the Mayans wouldn’t have noticed that people who were exposed to a lot of cinnabar had health problems! Mercury poisoning isn’t very subtle. We Romans used cinnabar all the time in our interior decorating but we didn’t experience societal collapse. Probably because we didn’t lick our damn walls, and I can’t imagine the Mayans did either. Or their corpses, in the Mayan case.
PLINY THE ELDER: Well, we did have enslaved workers handle the mercury ore. Because, you know, all the crazy. Got to contain the environmental contaminants to the most vulnerable, of course. Didn’t the Mayans? I’d imagine it would be hard to run a society at all if everyone was wallowing in mercury.
FRONTINUS: It’s the “lead poisoning brought down the Roman Empire” argument all over again. We used lead water pipes for over a thousand years! The internal mineral coating prevents the lead leaking into the water. How would we have maintained such massive infrastructure if we were all being debilitatingly poisoned by it?
PLINY THE ELDER: Frontinus, you have to let it go. This obsession with infrastructure is why you never obtained my level of fame. Why focus on one thing when you can make wild suppositions in all sorts of subjects? I wrote about everything from painting to eels, yet I died because I didn’t understand how wind blows. And I was in charge of the Roman fleet at the time!
FRONTINUS: The mortals haven’t fixed that problem either.
PLINY THE ELDER: Wind?
FRONTINUS: No, people wildly speculating on areas where they have no professional expertise. Like Jared Diamond, this ornithologist who thinks he’s an anthropologist. Apparently he’s a big player on the societal collapse scene.
PLINY THE ELDER: Well, I suppose if someone confuses birds and people, he might be the sort to believe that almost everyone in a society could suffer obvious crippling nerve damage from heavy metal poisoning, without anyone doing anything about it. Don’t worry, I’m sure no one reads his works.
EDWARD GIBBON, 18th CENTURY HISTORIAN AND WILD HISTORICAL SPECULATOR: Pardon me bobbing over from the Historians Grove, but my social-collapse-sense was tingling! Did someone mention the Fall of the Roman Empire? I have a copyright on that, you know. Whose society is collapsing now? Is it because of monks? I bet it’s because of monks. They collapse all the best societies.
PLINY THE ELDER: Oh good, someone else! Frontinus, why don’t you talk collapse with this eager fat British man I’ve never seen before. I’m on my way to argue with Aristotle over whether pig dung fixes uterine problems (leaves quickly).
FRONTINUS: How do you feel about aqueducts?
EDWARD GIBBON: They sound like a papist-Jewish plot to undermine civic society.
FRONTINUS: That’s insane.
EDWARD GIBBON: Indeed, thank you. It’s what makes me good at my job, which I decided was cherry-picking evidence until it fits some strange nonsensical narrative about the past. Have you met Winston Churchill? He’s my biggest fan.
FRONTINUS: What’s his record on infrastructure and poisoning his subjects?
EDWARD GIBBON: Um, admittedly not great…
To learn more about how the ancients interacted with the natural world around them, enroll in our new 1-credit “appetizer” course CLAS-B 314 The Environment in the Ancient World, coming in the second-third of Spring 2023 with no pre-reqs. Or to learn more about Roman civic infrastructure (which was just fine, thank you very much), enroll in CLAS-C 102 Ancient Roman Culture, also coming up Spring 2023, and earn GEC credits while you’re at it! Can’t get enough of Ancient Greece and Rome? Earn a Classics Minor in just 15 credits!