Human activities over the last several centuries have transferred vast quantities of mercury (Hg) from deep geologic stores to actively cycling earth-surface reservoirs, increasing atmospheric Hg deposition worldwide. Understanding the magnitude and fate of these releases is critical to predicting how rates of atmospheric Hg deposition will respond to future emission reductions. The most recently compiled global inventories of integrated (all-time) anthropogenic Hg releases are dominated by atmospheric emissions from preindustrial gold/silver mining in the Americas. However, the geophysical evidence for such large early emissions is equivocal, because most reconstructions of past Hg-deposition have been based on lake-sediment records that cover only the industrial period (1850-present). Here we evaluate historical changes in atmospheric Hg deposition over the last millennium from a suite of lake-sediment cores collected from remote regions of the globe. Along with recent measurements of Hg in the deep ocean, these archives indicate that atmospheric Hg emissions from early mining were modest as compared to more recent industrial-era emissions. Although large quantities of Hg were used to extract New World gold and silver beginning in the 16th century, a reevaluation of historical metallurgical methods indicates that most of the Hg employed was not volatilized, but rather was immobilized in mining waste.