Cinnabar has been used for its color in the New World since the Olmec culture. Cinnabar was used in royal burial chambers during the peak of Maya civilization, most dramatically in the Tomb of the Red Queen in Palenque (600–700 AD), where the remains of a noble woman and objects belonging to her in her sarcophagus were completely covered with bright red powder made from cinnabar.
The most popularly known use of cinnabar is in Chinese carved lacquerware, a technique that apparently originated in the Song Dynasty. The danger of mercury poisoning may be reduced in ancient lacquerware by entraining the powdered pigment in lacquer, but could still pose an environmental hazard if the pieces were accidentally destroyed. In the modern jewelry industry, the toxic pigment is replaced by a resin-based polymer that approximates the appearance of pigmented lacquer.
Because of its mercury content, cinnabar can be toxic to human beings. Though peoples in ancient South America often used cinnabar for art, or processed it into refined mercury (as a means to gild silver and gold to objects) "the toxic properties of mercury were well known. It was dangerous to those who mined and processed cinnabar, it caused shaking, loss of sense, and death...data suggest that mercury was retorted from cinnabar and the workers were exposed to the toxic mercury fumes." Overexposure to mercury, mercurialism, was seen as an occupational disease to the ancient Romans, "Mining in the Spanish cinnabar mines of Almadén, 225 km southwest of Madrid, was regarded as being akin to a death sentence due to the shortened life expectancy of the miners, who were slaves or convicts."