The Río Tinto drains the eastern part of the Iberian Pyrite Belt (IPB), an area with a huge amount of massive sulphide deposits that has been mined for the last 4500 years. This river presents extreme conditions, with very high concentrations in solution of metals and metalloids and low pH values. Mining activities in the upper part of the watershed of the Río Tinto have been documented since historical times and a huge amount of widespread acid-producing mine residues exist in this area. Nevertheless, there is no consensus among the scientific community as to whether the extreme conditions of the Río Tinto are the result of natural processes or the intense mining activity in the region. Here we show, using numerous geological, archaeological and historical records, that the present quality of the Río Tinto is the result of mining activities, especially during the period 1850–2001, while natural processes of formation of acid rock drainage can be considered negligible.
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