Cochineal: the insect behind the luxurious pre-Hispanic bright red pigment

The red pigment was a symbol of power.

Pre-Hispanic Mexico was full of diversity and colors. In ancient times, certain insects were used to obtain pigments with which they painted crafts, murals, among other works of art or textiles. The cochineal was one of them, and there’s really a whole symbology behind this little insect.

What's cochineal and what was it used for?

Cochineal, also known as grana cochinilla, is a natural pigment of pre-Hispanic origin that later became an international product. It was the most exported dye from New Spain during the 16th century, after gold and silver.


For a long time, humanity sought to achieve red tones that would last over time and that would be fixed to wool and silk. Ever since Europeans knew about the cochineal in the 16th century, after the fall of Tenochtitlan, they appreciated its value.

The insect from which the dye is obtained is popularly called grana cochinilla (cochineal, in English). Its scientific name is 'Dactylopius coccus'. In Nahuatl, it was called ‘nocheztli’, which means “nopal blood”, and in Mixtec ‘ndukun’, which means “insect blood”. Each indigenous culture of ancient times had a different name for the insect. This ethnolinguistic element indicates that there was knowledge and early use of the dye by ethnic groups long before the Spanish arrived.


How to obtain the cochineal?

It’s the female of this species (whose life cycle is three months), which contains carminic acid, the substance that’s synthesized as a colorant. The male doesn’t require this defense because its life cycle is short, which is reduced to a week. During those days, it fulfills its reproductive function and then dies.

The cochineal is a plague of the cacti, which was domesticated centuries ago in Mesoamerica. This process lasted years and was carried out jointly with the nopal plant. To collect the cochineal, a spoon with an elongated handle is used, which makes it easier for the farmer to remove all the insects from the nopal. This process usually takes 90 days; however, it depends on many factors.


Red, a precious symbol

In the 16th century, the era of kings and princes, the color red served as a symbol of power. It was associated mainly with the high hierarchies of the church and the monarchy, as highlighted by Huémac Escalona Lüttig, a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for Historical Research of the UNAM.

In fact, since medieval times, strong colors, mainly red, were reserved for this social elite. Hence the origin of the interest in its trade to nurture the luxury textile industry, which was the one that dressed the great European hierarchies.


Likewise, Huémac Escalona Lüttig highlights that the dyers, who specialized in the manufacture of textiles for the elites, were in the constant and rampant search for quality colorants and dyeing formulas. It’s said that the 16th-century dyers, settled in Venice and Florence, were the main buyers of dyes and invented secret formulas based on the red Mexican cochineal.

Translated by Gaby Flores

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