Prior to the discovery of cochineal in the Americas, the natural red dyes used in Europe and Asia came mainly from madder, a plant, or kermes, an insect found in the Mediterranean region.
Cochineal is a small parasitic insect found primarily on the pads of the prickly pear cactus, its source of food. It is native to tropical and subtropical South America, as well as Mexico, and has a naturally high content of carminic acid—the source of the red dye known as carmine or cochineal. The insects were harvested by brushing them off the cacti, and dried, giving them the appearance of small grains.
Cochineal was an important part of Aztec and Incan society prior to the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century. Historians have noted that among the tributes destined for the Aztec court every three months, from the Zapotec peoples of central Oaxaca Valley, were 20 bags of grana chochinilla (cochineal grains).
When Hernan Cortes began his conquest of the Aztec, he reported back to Emperor Charles V a discovery of red dyestuff that could be valuable for Spanish textile manufacturers. Shortly after this discovery, cochineal became “the second most important Spanish export from Mexico after silver, fueling Spain’s economy until the early nineteenth century, when Mexico won its independence.” Even pirates sought Spanish ships carrying cochineal as cargo.
The importance of cochineal in the European economy and textile manufacturing during this time cannot be overstated. With different mordants, it produced an expansive range of intense red color for woolens and silks—a color that was highly desirable among high-ranking clergy of the Catholic Church and European aristocracy. Cochineal replaced kermes as the most popular and coveted of red dye in a relatively short period of time. “Cochineal possessed from ten to twelve times the dyeing properties of kermes; it also produced colors far superior in brilliancy and fastness.” Within 50 years after its introduction to the market, Mexican cochineal replaced kermes for scarlet dyeing in Europe. It was used to color British officers’ red coats, and Catholic bishops’ red robes and appears vibrantly in 17th-19th century paintings in the guise of wealthy merchants’ and aristocrats’ clothing and textiles.
Today, most dyes used for textile manufacture are synthetic in origin, as they are typically cheaper to produce. This does not mean, however, that cochineal is no longer used. Interestingly, cochineal is most commonly used as a colorant for food and lipstick.