Rubber is a common ingredient in a wide variety of consumer products, from tires to pet toys to shoes. But rubber as we know it has been around only since 1839, when Charles Goodyear invented the “vulcanization” process that takes raw rubber (which is naturally sticky and brittle) and heats it with sulfur to strengthen its chemical structure. As inventions go, vulcanization was a biggie, leading eventually to the use of around 10 billion pounds of rubber each year in North America alone! Yet, research has shown that our culture came very late to the rubber game.
Scientists at MIT have now proven – after 14 years of research – that the ancient Mayans had mastered their own rubber-production process as early as 3600 years ago. The Mayans mixed sap from the Panama rubber tree with sulfur-containing juice from the morning glory vine in varying ratios to produce strong rubber for balls, sandals, adhesives, statues, and even rubber bands. By the 16th century, the Mayan rubber industry was producing 16,000 rubber balls per year (in addition to a wide variety of other rubber products). Much of this rubber was produced on the outskirts of the Mayan civilization and sent in to the capital city as tax payments.
So, in addition to astronomy, art, and mathematics, we can now add “chemical engineering” to the long list of Mayan accomplishments. Just so we’re clear, though: one thing the Mayans did NOT do was predict the end of the world in 2012.
Speaking of 2012, don’t miss your last chance to see Science 360: The Truth Behind 2012 before it comes off the Morehead schedule for the summer. The show’s final dates are Saturday and Sunday, June 5-6 and Saturday and Sunday, June 12-13. Visit the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center homepage for times.
Casey Rawson is the Science Content Developer for Science 360.