Without mercury, would there have been a Cerro Rico supplying silver to Europe and beyond? After depleting Potosí’s relatively rich silver ores in the mid-sixteenth century, Spaniards adjusted the long-known amalgamation process, which relied on elemental mercury, salt, water, and other reagents, to refine Potosí’s lower-grade silver ores. This new assault on Potosí’s silver gave rise to one of the more vivid images of colonial Latin American history: workers, coerced through the mita system, trudging through the amalgam of crushed silver ore, mercury, and water at a 12,000-foot elevation.

Robins combines archival work and reading of published primary materials, air pollution modeling, and knowledge of medical research on health effects of mercury exposure in a superb treatment of Andean colonial mining. He argues that genocidal policies encouraged the adoption of amalgamation in Potosí, which necessitated a supply of mercury, found in Huancavelica, creating “one of the largest and longest-lasting ecological...

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