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A bug of reds & riches: since pre-Columbian times, an insect harvested in the Americas has provided the world with a highly valued dye.

Imagine a world where for every color you wore, there was a price to be paid. One and a half times more for green than for yellow. Ten times more for dark red than for sky blue. And if you were not careful, and bought your cloth from an unscrupulous dyer, your wonderful and expensive crimson cloak might fade to a washed-out shade of pink in a matter of days.

Such was the case in Renaissance Italy where, according to these actual relative prices, red ruled the rich. Textile dyers specialized in all its hues--from rose to purple to scarlet--and jealously guarded the secret ingredients of their Old World dyestuffs, although a true red color was nearly impossible to get just right. But suddenly, from the watery city of Tenochtitlan so swiftly fallen to the Spanish crown in 1519, came a super dye. European fashion was turned upside down, and nearly everyone could afford to wear real red.

This super dye was cochineal, made from the dried shell of the female ladybug-like, scaly-winged, sap-sucking insect Dactylopuis coccus, which has since pre-Columbian times been the source of dyestuff in both Mesoamerica and South America. The bug itself is tiny, measuring only twelve-one-hundredths of an inch, and lightweight stuff--seventy thousand dried shells to a pound--but its effect on the worldwide taste for color has been enormous. The title of a new book about cochineal by Amy Butler Greenfield--A Perfect Red--succinctly tells us why.

The Old World had long had to make due with several shades of imperfect red derived from either vegetable sources, such as the madder plant of the Rubiaceae family or other scale insects like the oak kermes, which feeds off the Mediterranean oak tree; the oddly named St. John's Blood, so called because they were collected in mid-summer near St. John's Day; or Armenian Red, a parasite that feeds on the roots of grasses in the Caucasus Mountains.

The Romans and Egyptians used these "kermesie" (from the Sanskrit word krmi, meaning "grub worm") dyes, and they were elaborated by the Venetians, Florentines, and Ottomans, but never with satisfactory results. They were difficult and time consuming to make--the insects had to be picked off the roots of pulled-up plants--and their finished hues were never exactly matchable from batch to batch. It was such a technical art that special red-dye guilds were dedicated to processing and testing any new sources that appeared in hopes of finding an improvement.

But in the New World, the much better dyes made from cochineal had long been in use. Pre-Columbian textiles from Peru's Nazca and Chimu cultures are still vivid with its color. Pizarro's companions Francisco de Xeres and Miguel de Estete both mention it in their chronicles. Textile conservator Elena Phipps at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, who recently curated an exhibition on Peruvian colonial tapestries, says, "The Incas loved reds. They were used symbolically, in the mascaypacha, or royal headband, and the neck yoke of the uncu, or soldier's tunic, in a color the Spanish chroniclers called royo encarnado, or red incarnate."

In Mexico, Cortes's companion Bernal Diaz del Castillo wrote of the wonderful goods for sale in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, "and much cochineal is sold under the arcades which are in that great market place." Aztec tribute lists show that one hundred bags, the equivalent of nine tons, or some one billion insects, were paid yearly by their subject peoples to the south and west. The fact that Mexico has more cochineal predators, and thus a longer history of co-evolution, than Peru indicates that the insect might have originated in Mesoamerica, but no one knows for sure.

Cochineal was known to the Spanish as grana or grana cochinilla, from the Latin granum for the Romans' insect-based dye, which also means "grain"--a confusion indicating they did not know the dried carapace came from an insect at all, but rather thought it of vegetative origin. In Nahuatl, it is known more poetically as nocheztli, a compound word from nochtli, or nopal cactus, and eztli, or blood--thus becoming "nopal blood." Its harvest was a time of superstition, requiring sacrifice to Coqueela, the cochineal protector god, and a special whisk broom and clay pots, so it was never touched by human hands.

The host plant of the female cochineal bug is the symbolically important nopal (genus Opuntia) cactus, which forms part of the glyph for the Aztec people--an eagle atop a nopal. The Aztec capital Tenochtitlin contains the root word for nopal in its very name. The bugs when feeding on nopal sap produce a white wax-like coating, but become dark bluish red when engorged with eggs on a three-month cycle, and ooze up to 25 percent pure scarlet-colored carminic acid--also known as hydroxyanthraquinone!--when crushed between one's fingers. Cochineal predators, whether turkeys, mice, lizards, or other insects, hate the taste of it.

Early Mesoamericans improved the species through selective breeding, timed harvests, and host plant management. Wild cochineal bugs exist throughout the hemisphere, but the people in the Oaxaca Valley developed a larger domesticated variety higher in carminic acid purity although intolerant of rain or cold. Oddly, there were few tame animal species anywhere in pre-Columbian Mexico, but the art of insect husbandry was common--native peoples kept many varieties of honeybees and widely farmed the cosmetic wax-producing insect Llaveia axin.

As in Europe, red for the Aztecs was a color of prestige. In Nahuatl, the word for "red," tlapalli, is also the generic word for "color," similar in Spanish usage to the words color and colorado, or "red." Although Mesoamericans had no decent fiber textiles that could be easily dyed (animal fibers such as sheep fleece are best), they did have rabbit fur, feathers, native paper, and woven animal hair. A common Aztec family prayer asked for the daughters to become skillful dyers.

Although it was Montezuma's gold and silver that caught the eye of Cortes, he did send a shipment of cochineal-dyed codices to Carlos V in 1520, and three years later the king wrote back to Cortes for more information about this dyestuff, hoping for "a great profit for the royal purse." But the more glittery stuff took precedence, and even when Cortes received a land grant in the Oaxaca Valley, where most cochineal was produced, he neglected its value. The trade remained in the hands of native merchants, and the harvest itself suffered when the Dominicans tried to introduce a silk industry there.

Italian merchants standing on Seville's quay sides as the returning ships tied up were intrigued by the possibilities of this new dye. The Venetian silk guild's archive has a document dating from February 1543 showing that cochineal was tested and found to be much better than existing dyes, partly because it contained fewer fatty lipids and thus better saturated raw fiber. Demand from fashion dandies mounted, and not just in Europe. Cochineal was exported to China in the Manila galleons, where it became known as yang hung, or "foreign red."

Cochineal growing shifted in the immediate post-Conquest years to Tlaxcala, which remained largely independent and free of Spanish land grants because of the region's early alliance with Cortes. By the 1560s, 175,000 pounds per year, valued at a quarter million pesos, or $6 million in today's currency, were exported to Seville. And because cochineal is produced most efficiently on small family-owned nopaleras, or nopal groves, it remained in the hands of natives. Puebla became its trading center.

According to the Actas, or government records, of Tlaxcala in the mid-sixteenth century, town fathers became concerned that the new wealth of the peasant growers was disrupting their devotion to church and state. They complained of public drunkenness, commerce conducted on the sabbath, and ill behavior towards social superiors. "They no longer want to cultivate their [other] fields," it was noted, "but idly neglect them." Still, efforts failed to ban cochineal production outright or to limit the number of nopal plants an individual was allowed.

Cochineal farming in Oaxaca rebounded after the Dominican silk experiment failed and Spanish settlers in Tlaxcala began to take over the best land for cattle. By the seventeenth century, Oaxaca was again cochineal's capital city. Europeans even began to call the dye mixteca after its region of origin. Cochineal itself may explain the great linguistic and cultural diversity of Oaxaca today. Because its small-scale production helped keep families and small communities intact, unlike plantation-style sisal farming or cattle ranching, there were fewer cultural disruptions due to land tenure and population changes that plagued other Mexican regions.

Indeed, at the turn of the nineteenth century, when the Mexican landed economy was consolidating into larger units, Alexander yon Humboldt found Oaxacan Indian producers migrating with their insects, nopal leaf by nopal leaf, out of the valley floor to higher "pastures" in order to avoid the summer heat. This kind of tender loving care is only shown when man and insect have formed a close and personal bond.

Although royal taxes on cochineal amounted to a fraction of the revenue stemming from the silver trade, the crown did impose its own controls--dictating its drying procedure in order to maximize sale values and naming a juez de grana, or "cochineal judge," to oversee it as a royal monopoly in 1618. It was the only agricultural product so listed by the crown, but the effort failed as production and trading were driven to the black market. The provision was lifted four years later, but indirect monopolistic practices maintained the secrets of its origin, by keeping foreigners from trading in cochineal or from visiting cochineal-producing nopaleras.

The fact that cochineal remained a mystery--what was it?, European scientists asked--for centuries is difficult to understand. Although the Romans started off on the wrong foot by calling it "grain," the indomitable Bernardino de Sahagun provided sixteenth-century savants with a perfectly lucid description, straight from the mouths of cochineal farmers. "It is an insect, a worm. The cochineal nopal is the breeding place of this cochineal. It lives, it hatches on the nopal like a little fly, a little insect.... It fattens, it increases in size.... When the worms are distended, they come to rest like blood blisters.... It is of quite dark surface, still like dried blood. The dye is well known around the world, all the way to China and Turkey."

Unfortunately for the advancement of science, Sahagun's manuscript was not widely known. The most authoritative commentator on the New World, Fernandez de Oviedo in his Historia general (1535), mentioned a strong red dye from the nopal, but said it was made from its red fruit. Even Jose de Acosta's Historia natural y moral de los Indias (1590), which did correctly identify it as an insect, could not swing majority opinion.

Other European scientists thought it a Spanish conspiracy to keep away prying eyes, and their own wild guesses tilted towards the plant theory--based on thinking that such a small insect would surely be too difficult to catch in such multi-toned export numbers. Even the use of the newly invented microscope was not conclusive. Finally, an enterprising Dutchman named Melchior de Ruusscher sought a definitive answer in order to settle a gentleman's wager, and asked some Spanish friends in Oaxaca to gather oral testimony from local experts, including Indian farmers. He published his findings in Natuerlyke historie van de couchenille (1729), which was accepted in a court of law and thus in scientific circles as well. Cochineal, it could now be definitively said in Europe, was a bug.

Unlike scientists, pirates did not care what cochineal was, as long as its price was high. The Earl of Essex, privateering under the order of Queen Elizabeth I, captured twenty-seven tons of it from a Spanish ship off the Canary Islands in 1597--worth nearly $11 million today. Elizabeth was ecstatic with the symbolism of the theft, for now more of her subjects could wear red, as if to poke a stick in the eye of the Spanish crown. But most freebooters considered themselves lucky to get even a chest or two as booty. Pound for pound it was the most valuable loot on board.

Cochineal was also put in play at the bourse. In 1787, the Amsterdam merchant Henry Hope cornered the world market by purchasing 732,540 pounds--about 95 percent of that year's production, and thought to be just about every last ounce in Europe at the time--for 551,109 pounds sterling. He lost his shirt, however, and could only sell 70 percent, at prices well below what he had paid.

Why did the taste for red drive Europeans to such folly? Even the American poet Emily Dickinson, who lived her reclusive life far from the world of fashion, knew the glamour of the color red, as she wrote in a poem dating to 1865 about the showy costume of a ruby-throated hummingbird.
 A Route of Evanescence
 With a Revolving Wheel--A
 Resonance of Emerald--A
 Rush of Cochineal--


As in Aztec Mexico, cochineal in the West was more than a color for your clothes. It was used as a cosmetic by ladies and as medicine by men wounded fighting duels. The sixteenth-century herbalist Fernando Hernandez recommended cochineal for bleeding sores, stomach aches, and dirty teeth. A century later, John Gerard's medical book touted it for "melancholy" diseases, including "vaine imaginations, sighings, griefe, and sorrow." England's Charles II took some in an enema on his death bed in 1680. In Italy, it was made into a health-affirming liqueur--and is still appreciated by Campari drinkers! Voltaire put it on par with chocolate as the New World's greatest gift to the Old.

But it ruled as a cloth dye, and with a Dutch inventor's accidental discovery in 1607 that the addition of tin to the formula made even brighter reds, European demand grew by leaps and bounds for eye-popping colors among priests, military men, and royalty alike. Everything it seemed, from the French King Louis XIV's ruby-colored slippers to the red plaids of Scottish tartans, from the British redcoats mindlessly marching up Boston's Bunker Hill in the American Revolutionary War to the American flag that flew over Fort Henry in the War of 1812, owed its color to cochineal.

The one thing cochineal failed at was as an artist's pigment. Especially in watercolors, it was harder to work with than other pigments, and it faded quickly if badly mixed. Many an eye-dazzling sunset by the British artist J. M. W. Turner has faded to hues far duller than the brilliant fireworks of red and orange that he had seen at the dimming of the day.

Paying top dollar to the Spanish monopoly soon became wearisome. European investors wanted the insect live, in order to benefit from its production as well as its trade. French botanist Nicolas-Joseph Thiery de Menonville received four thousand livres from the French government to obtain living specimens, and in 1777 shipped out from the colony of Sainte-Domingue, now Haiti, where he had previously prepared a test farm, enroute to Veracruz, from where he traveled illegally and incognito, as a French-accented Catalan doctor, to Oaxaca. In the dead of night he entered a nopalera and stole "the golden fleece," as he recorded in his derring-do account Traite de la culture du nopal et de l'education de la cochenille dans les colonies Francaises de l'Amerique (1787), "eight of the handsomest branches, each two feet long and consisting of seven or eight leaves in length, so perfectly covered in cochineals as to be quite white with them."

His experiment in Sainte-Domingue was a failure, however, as he battled cochineal-killing rains and a wild native species of the insect, which threatened to overwhelm the more delicate Mexican variety. Menonville died in 1780, and his farm fell apart. British bio-pirates later tried their hand, succeeding in smuggling a wild Brazilian variety to Madras, where the city botanical garden's New World cactus, known locally as the Bengal nopal, and all those in nearby hedgerows, were decimated by the bugs' voracious appetite. When the first harvest finally came in, the dye yield from the wild species was found to be useless.

Mexico's War of Independence and growing European anti-royalist (and thus, anti-"red," royalty's favorite color) sentiment following the French Revolution had a chaotic if temporary impact on both demand and supply of cochineal. With lax crown control, Oaxacan-style production shifted to Guatemala, the Canary Islands, mainland Spain, and even to the Dutch colony of Java. At the same time, Napoleon offered a reward of twenty thousand livres to anyone who could produce a cheap alternative to cochineal using the common madder plant, which had long been a low-grade alternative.

By the time global demand recovered in the mid nineteenth century, Guatemala, ruled then by the cochineal farmer-turned-caudillo Rafael Carrera, had emerged as the world export leader. In 1850, it shipped two million pounds, more than twice that of Mexico. In the country's premier producing area around Amatitlan, one visitor described the cactus fields "glistening like silver under their precious coating of cochineal."

Overproduction soon led to a price t crash, and European chemists busied themselves coming up with new near-red colors in the laboratory--mauve, magenta, and fuschine--all iteratively closer to basic red--from the most ubiquitous source of all, coal tar. And then in the 1870s, out of the lab came alizarine, eosine, and roccellin--each in its way a perfectly matched cochineal-like hue. The floor fell out from under traditional producers. Guatemala turned to coffee, the Canary Islands planted bananas, and Mexico stubbornly clung to the few world buyers insistent on nonchemical dyes--like Persia, for its carpet industry.

Artisanal producers struggled on over the years, especially in Oaxaca, where the dye is still prized for traditional weaving, until the "all-natural" boom of the 1960s was underscored with the red dye #2 cancer scare of the 1970s. Bright colors from synthetic dyes--whether in your food or on your body--were not considered worth dying for, even if cochineal dyes, at about $80 per kilogram, are almost ten times more expensive. Production has quickly bounced back, and today it is Peru, where the oldest cochineal-dyed textiles on earth have been found, that leads the world in exports, at some two hundred tons per year. One company near Arequipa keeps seven million cochineal-infested nopal cacti under care.

Metropolitan Museum conservator Elena Phipps finds it no coincidence that cochineal production has returned so successfully to southern Peru. "The Nazca period textiles are so well preserved," she says, "such clean and beautiful reds, their pinks are so perfect, it's hard to believe they are more than fifteen hundred years old. When I was last in Moquegua, I just couldn't resist buying a few pounds of cochineal for myself. You never know when it might come in handy."

The color red, it seems, whether in your blood or as a flush in your face, is simply part of being human.

A frequent contributor to Americas, Louis Werner is a documentary filmmaker living in New York City.
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Author:Werner, Louis
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Geographic Code:0LATI
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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