Cochineal: Red Dye for the World

The cochineal insect, Dactylopius coccus, can be found on the pads of the nopal cactus. The crushed bodies, fresh or dried, make a bright red dye. Cochineal cultivation is very hard work and requires skill. It takes about 25,000 live insects to create 1 pound of dye and takes even more dried insects to create the same amount, about 70,000 dried insects. This dye was used by the indigenous people in Mesoamerica in textile works, paintings, and much more. During colonial times, it was one of the many products that was exploited by the Spanish. Globally, the use of the cochineal decreased after the creation of synthetic dyes, but has once again found its use as a natural dye in the modern world.

During the pre-Hispanic era, the indigenous people would harvest the cochineal bug by hand from wild cactus. The grinding of the cochineal and production of the dye was time-consuming and required great kill to produce. Cochineal grew on cactus’ everywhere, but they were mostly gathered in the regions of Oaxaca, Puebla, and the Mixtec. Cochineal dye was used in many textiles such as clothing, paintings, rugs, etc. The cochineal bug was one of the most important red dyes in Mesoamerican culture.

Upon realizing the value of cochineal, the Spanish created nopalerias and used indigenous people as laborers. Wanting to covet this source of wealth, Spain restricted the sale of cochineal to only within the Spanish empire. The Spanish colonialists shipped about 250,000 to 300,000 pounds of cochineal dye to Europe every year. Due to the popularity of cochineal dye, the Spanish began creating nopalerias in Guatemala, Nicaragua, and other Spanish colonies in South America during the 17th Century. During the colonial era, there was a high demand for cochineal dye from the Finnish, Dutch, and British textile makers. Although cochineal was cultivated by indigenous laborers, the high demand and lack of skilled laborers gave workers power, albeit limited, against their Spanish oppressors. At one point, cochineal production in Oaxaca had around 30,000 indigenous workers. During the 18th Century, cochineal dye became Mexico’s second highest exported item after silver. During that time in Europe, color was used to show wealth and power. The bright and colorful red cochineal dye was incorporated into the fashion of European elites as a status symbol. The cochineal dyed clothing was vibrant and long-lasting making it a coveted commodity in the European world.

After the creation of synthetically colored dyes in the 19th century, cochineal’s global demand decreased. However, cochineal was still harvested and used in the Americas in rugs, clothing, and thread created by indigenous communities. One town in particular is famous for their rugs, which are colored by natural dyes including cochineal. The rugs produced from Teotitlan are of high quality and can be sold for thousands of dollars. In cities, it is not uncommon to find at least one shop that sells Teotitlan rugs. IN recent times, cochineal has once again found popularity in the world as a natural dye. Cochineal is currently used as a natural dye in cosmetics, foods, and drugs. However it is commonly labeled as Carmine or Natural Red Dye 4. Starbucks even used it in one of their featured Frappuccinos a couple of years ago, which resulted an uproar when people discovered their drinks were being colored with bugs. In many red colored foods, such as Strawberry Banana yogurt from Yoplait, it is not surprising to find carmine labeled under the ingredients list. This goes to show that the influence of Mesoamerican culture and European contact is a continual occurrence in the world.