Cochineal: The Long History of a Bug

Jan 2022
10-minute read

For my second year with the Humanities Collaborative at UTEP-EPCC, I was assigned to work on Humanities Collaborative Faculty Fellow Zoe Spiliotis’s art project. Our project is creating a color palette that is representative of the many colors we see in and around El Paso, Texas. During my research, Professor Spiliotis suggested that I research the cochineal dye that was historically used in the surrounding areas. The research that followed fascinated me and showed me a remarkable piece of history about which I previously knew nothing.

Pear Cactus
Prickly pear cactus with cochineal.  Image courtesy Wikimedia.

Cochineal dye was once one of the most important colorants in the world. Hundreds of tons of it were exported from the New World for use throughout Europe, yet now, in today’s age, it would be rare for someone to even know what “cochineal” is. So, what is cochineal? The cochineal color goes by many different names such as carmine, Natural Red 4, and E1201. Cochineal comes from a miniscule, parasitic insect that feeds off the prickly pear cactus that grows throughout much of the Americas.2 The female insects attach themselves to a prickly pear cactus pad and create a fuzzy, cocoon-like structure,3 where they will remain for the rest of their lives.4 In contrast, the male cochineals do not permanently attach themselves to a cactus pad; instead, they remain small and mobile.5 Because the female cochineals do not move, they require some sort of protection from predators. To this affect, the female cochineals produce carminic acid, which acts as a natural form of insect-repellant.6 This acid is the ingredient responsible for the historical cochineal craze.7

Spanish Indian Cactus Image
Spanish image of cochinal harvesting. Image courtesy of Santa Fe New Mexican.

Raymond Lee, a noted historian, talks about cochineal processing in his book, Cochineal Production and Trade in New Spain to 1600. When speaking of their size and weight, Lee says, “Of almost microscopic size, 25,000 of these insects were generally required for a pound when freshly gathered. After drying, 70,000 might be required, depending on the drying method employed.”8 Each one of those thousands of insects had to be gathered by hand,9 and hundreds of tons of cochineal were exported from the New World to the Old.10 Many different methods were used to kill and dry the cochineal11 such as boiling the insects, drying them in the sun, or steaming them.12

Conquistador Inmage
Conquistadors in the Americas.  Image courtesy of Hub Pages.

Cochineal’s fame has a long history that began long before Spain’s conquest of Mexico. Before Hernando Cortes had even set foot on the continent, cochineal was being farmed by the native populations of the Americas.13 There was a noteworthy market for Cochineal in Aztec culture; it appeared in their art, clothes, and rituals.14 It was precious enough that it even served as a form of tribute for the last Aztec emperor, Montezuma II.15 After Hernando Cortes conquered the Aztec kingdom in the early 1500s, cochineal was largely ignored for several decades. At the time, the most brilliant red dye found in Europe was a dye known as European kermes.16 After his conquest, Cortes learned of cochineal, and he mistook it for this other dye. The king of Spain requested that Cortes bring as much of this “European kermes” as possible back to Spain, and, as it turns out, Cortes instead sent back the far more valuable and potent cochineal.17 Cortes was ordered to send back the dyestuff in 1523,18 yet it was only after 1550 that Spain began to produce and sell cochineal in earnest.19 Soon, Spain, which controlled most of the area where cochineal naturally grew, had established a thriving monopoly of cochineal20 and was exporting shiploads of it to Europe.21 Cochineal would be second only to silver as Spain’s most valuable export from the New World.22

Yarn Various Colors Image
Various colors produced by cochineal.  Image courtesy of Squarespace.

Humans throughout history have sought colors with which to decorate their clothes, buildings, ceremonial items, and even bodies. In the past, some colors were incredibly difficult or expensive to create or reproduce. That is why, in general, royalty or people of very high status would wear bright, unique colors, and the common people would be dressed in drab, earthy colors. Historically, one of the hardest colors to find or produce was the color red.23 This is the reason for cochineal’s importance. Cochineal is a deep, beautiful, lush red. It can come in a variety of colors, from a near-scarlet to a deep purple,24 depending on how it is processed and the presence of any additives.25 In paintings, cochineal was often used as a glaze, which allowed it to quietly hide in the background instead of dazzling the audience with its powerful color.26 At the time of cochineal’s discovery by Europe, there was no red dye that could compare to its brilliance and potency.27 The closest thing to it was the weak European kermes, which cochineal is 10 to 12 times more powerful than.28 This is why it became a literal treasure for the kingdom of Spain.

In order to maintain its monopoly of the valuable dye, Spain kept the details of cochineal a secret.29 Ships bearing cochineal could only land at certain ports,30 and there was even a death sentence to discourage would-be smugglers.31 Fortunately for Spain, most of the attempts transplant cochineal ultimately failed.32 Because cochineal was so secretive, many speculations arose about its true origins. Many people incorrectly guessed that cochineal was some type of plant-based grain, because of its common name, grana.33 Because of the zealous guarding of this secret, Spain was able to maintain its monopoly for decades.34 Eventually, Spain did lose its control over cochineal, but it did provide an important revenue for Spain for several centuries.

Cochineal was used in many parts of the European economy. One notable use was as a dye for the famous British “redcoats”.35 The regular soldiers’ uniforms were usually died with cheaper dies, but the officers’ uniforms mainly used the expensive cochineal.36 Cochineal was also used in many of the famous art pieces of Europe. Many paintings by famous artists such as Peter Paul Rubens,37 Rembrandt van Rijn,38 Antony van Dyck,39 and others all used cochineal. Often it is known that a certain artist used cochineal in their works, but it can be difficult to tell which pieces contain it without destroying the art.

Rembrandt Image
Rembrant's "The Jewish Bride."  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

The cochineal business continued to thrive until the 1900s, when synthetic dyes, which were much cheaper and less labor-intensive than cochineal, began to be produced on a large scale.40 Thus, cochineal gradually fell out of use. In recent years however, cochineal has begun to regain some of its original value, primarily as the key ingredient in the E120 colorant.41 When it was realized that synthetic dyes in foods can be dangerous to humans, cochineal began to be used to dye many different types of foods. E120 can be found in pharmaceutical42 and cosmetic43 products and is often used in foods such as yogurts,44 meats,45 ice cream,46 smoothies,47 and chocolate.48 In fact, you might be surprised to learn that you have been consistently eating crushed bugs for years.

Cochineal has affected our modern world and economy in ways that we can never understand. While it is now relatively unknown and unappreciated, it was once important and precious to many of the ancestors of those who live in the Borderland region. When I started this research, I was fascinated to learn that men throughout history lived and died49 for cochineal. It made me wonder if the things that we live and strive for will still be valued in five centuries. That is one of the most important lessons I have learned from my research.

Written by Jireh Nelson, Undergraduate Research Fellow
El Paso Community College, The Humanities Collaborative at EPCC-UTEP

Banner image courtesy of Wikimedia.

Bibliography

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