Thesis ID: CBB209904775

The Heart of Red: Cochineal in Colonial Mexico and India (2021)


This dissertation explores how a complex relationship between humans, plants and animals led to the production of one of the Iberian Empire’s most valued commodities in the colonial period: cochineal dye. My research involves the history of cochineal dye insects in Europe, Asia and Central America. Based on archival research conducted in English, Spanish and Latin this thesis examines attempts and methods of growing and treating cochineal dye insects from Oaxaca, Mexico to Madras, India. I use global comparisons between native peoples in these areas to study colonial commodities with a particular focus on knowledge systems. Indigenous peoples developed an intricate set of practices, highly dependent on local geography, to ensure the survival of the domesticated cochineal insect (Dactylopius coccus). I consider a complex set of technologies/craft practices employed by indigenous people to grow cochineal in the different micro-climates of the Oaxacan landscape in southern Mexico. Unlike their natural philosophical contemporaries in early modern Europe, native cochineal growers appear to have understood the insect’s generation in detail. This project explains how a domesticated insect with symbolic and religious content was turned into the second most lucrative commodity and industry in colonial Mexico after precious metals. It also examines how knowledge regarding the raising of cochineal insects stayed in hands of native cochineal growers for centuries and did not translate well into other systems. By combining methods in anthropology, history of science, technology studies and environmental history with close text and image analysis, my work re-situates the cochineal in the various worlds views of different historical, global actors from Mexico to India.

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Authors & Contributors
Few, Martha
Crawford, Matthew James
Deister, Garcia Vivette
Eamon, William C.
Gabriel, Joseph M.
Greenfield, Amy Butler
Environment and History
British Journal for the History of Science
Canadian Bulletin of Medical History/Bulletin Canadienne d'Histoire de la Medecine
Centaurus: International Magazine of the History of Mathematics, Science, and Technology
História, Ciências, Saúde---Manguinhos
History of Science
Rutgers University
Franz Steiner Verlag
Harper Collins
Rowman & Littlefield
University of Pittsburgh Press
Indigenous peoples; indigeneity
Crafts and craftspeople
Natural history
Cross-cultural interaction; cultural influence
Zilsel, Edgar
Time Periods
Early modern
17th century
18th century
19th century
16th century
15th century
Great Britain

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