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Cochineal Dye > Cochineal History > History of Cochineal Dye in S America & C America

Cochineal in Central & South America

History of Cochineal in South America, including Peru

Machu Picchu - religious centre of the Incas, near to AyacuchoCochineal appears to have been used in Peru for about 1500 years and in Mexico for 1200 years. The earliest red yarns in Peru date to about 2000 BC but these were dyed with the roots of relbun (Relbunium spp), a plant closely related to madder, not with cochineal. Relbun was also used to obtain red colours in Paracas textiles (circa 800 BC) and even in the early Nasca textiles through to 350 AD (Grieder in Rowe 2007).

The earliest cochineal-dyed yarns appear first in the Nasca 7 burial site excavated by Lothrop & Mahler that was dated to 450-650 AD (in Rowe 2007). The widespread use of cochineal coincides with the expansion of the Huari empire in the Ayacucho area from 750 AD onwards (see Rowe) and this precedes the widespread cultivation of cochineal by the Toltecs in Mexico from 800 AD. Rodriguez and Niemeyer show that Peru had been trading with southern Mexico by sea for 2000 years (since 1450 BC). Sweet manioc and early corn were sent from Peru to Mexico and avocados and chillies travelled from Mexico to the Andes in exchange. This probably accounts for the adoption of cochineal by Mexico from Peru.

History of Cochineal in Central America, including Mexico

Codex Mendoza record of 40 bags of cochineal as tribute (bag with flag represents 20 bags)

Codex Mendoza records 40 bags of cochineal as tribute to Moctezuma (1 bag with flag = 20 bags)

Cochineal appears to have been introduced to Mexico 1200 years ago, from Peru. This was followed by widespread cultivation and exploitation of cochineal by the Toltecs from 800-1200 AD and Oaxaca became the centre of cochineal cultivation in Mexico.

Aztec expansion and colonisation of neighbouring states in the 1500s resulted in tribute being levied on dependent states and cities that is detailed in the Codex Mendoza and other documents. Bags of dried cochineal and cochineal-dyed cloth were important parts of this tribute and the Codex Mendoza records the number of bags of cochineal levied annually on each city.

Cochineal insects and cochineal dye are called nocheztli in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, meaning prickly pear (nopal cactus or opuntia cactus) blood and the name appears in place names such as the city of Nocheztlan in the centre of the main cochineal producing area.

The Spaniards noted the importance of cochineal and redirected the tribute away from the Aztec rulers to the Spanish court, whilst maintaining production amongst the indigenous population.

Commercial production in Mexico collapsed after the Mexican Revolution (1810-1821) and Mexico ceased to export cochineal commercially in 1932 (Rodriguez and Niemeyer).

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