Quicksilver’s Tales: Alchemical Histories and Contaminated Legacies


This paper examines current extractive rainforest economies in the context of alchemical histories in artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) in Peru, with a focus on the Amazonian region of Madre de Dios. As part of an ongoing collaborative research project with gold miners, indigenous communities, and environmental scientists, I bring ethnographic findings into conversation with archival materials from Incan metallurgical practices, extractive technologies and mining codes in the 16th century. Artisanal small-scale miners – (al)chemists of the rainforest – mix quicksilver with gold-flecked earth pulled from the forests subsoil and water sources. The attractive forces between the two metals creates a mercury-gold amalgam, which must be burned to leave pure gold. The blow-torch alchemy leaves quicksilver “tailings,” with small particles of gold still attached. North American and European environmental researchers and conservationists now seek methods to track and mitigate, if not eliminate the use of quicksilver in global ASGM. Chemical explanations about the disastrous health effects of mercury toxicity strikes many miners as a fabrication, a continuing legacy of colonial efforts to control the flow of natural resources. This paper’s contribution to STS, particularly in Latin America, revolves around the conflict between the mistrust of miners in environmental controls and Western scientific ideas regarding chemical toxicity. I conclude with considerations of how and where (al)chemical considerations can inform environmental and economic justice, with the aim of re-writing toxic endings to quicksilver’s tales.


Creative Commons Licence



Contributed date

September 9, 2021 - 4:13pm

Critical Commentary

Abstract for 4S 2021 presentation.

Group Audience

Cite as

Ruth Goldstein, "Quicksilver’s Tales: Alchemical Histories and Contaminated Legacies", contributed by Katie Ulrich, STS Infrastructures, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 9 September 2021, accessed 21 January 2022.