Ancient Mayans used a rare clay called palygorskite to produce their traditional Maya blue. The clay has been used in Mesoamerica since ancient times and was closely related to socio-cultural aspects of the Mayan culture.
Palygorskite is produced by mixing indigo, an organic dye obtained from the plant of the same name, with a base of palygorskite clay. The resulting compound is extraordinarily resistant to chemical and environmental elements.
Maya Blue was invented between the 6th and the 8th Century and can be found in sculptures, fresco paintings, codices and pre-Columbian decorations across Mesoamerica, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean. It was used during the colonial period to paint frescos in churches and convents. Maya blue was rediscovered in 1931 and scientists were baffled by the stability and persistence of this color found on objects dating back to pre-Columbian times.
"Present day native communities on the Yucatan Peninsula are familiar with and use palygorskite clay for a variety of purposes, ranging from making candles on All Saints' Day and household and artistic pottery to remedies for mumps, stomach and pregnancy pains and dysentery," explained Manuel Sánchez del Río, a physicist at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble (France). Modern pharmacology uses clays like palygorskite to produce anti-diarrhea medicine, a remedy the Maya began to use more than a thousand years ago.
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