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Español | Cochineal | Queen of | | Temazcal |
Cultivation of Cochineal in Oaxaca
Cempazuchil (marigold), mezquite, añil (indigo), curcuma, alazor and cochineal are some of the natural elements used for millennia to give color to life.
In the ancient Mixtec kingdom there was a small animal called cochineal by the Spanish and nocheztli (blood of the nopal cactus) by the ancient Mexicans. It is now called Dactylopius coccus Costa, by scientists.
The ancient legend
Although little is known of its origins, there is a legend told about two gods who fought a bitter battle for the possession of a field of nopal cactus, and that it was their blood, the result of their furious struggle, that splattered on the nopal leaves, giving them the power to pass on to posterity the “ink that circulated through their veins”.
While this is just another Mixtec legend, Mesoamerican cultures knew cochineal very well and proof of this is huge vocabulary that refers to this insect. In Mixteco it was called indico and in Zapoteco bi-aa or bi-yaa. Also the 300 families that cultivated it could tell the difference between cultivated cochineal (the fine cochineal) and wild (the common), these were referred to as nicheztli and ixquimiliuhqui in the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs and after gold and silver it was the most valuable product of the New World and was cultivated exclusively in the Mixteca region of Oaxaca.
The scientific analysis
The two types of cochineal correctly identified by the ancients have been the object of constant taxonomic modifications. One example of this is the case of the nomenclature of cultivated cochineal, which in 1758 Linneo classified as Coccus cacti. But in 1899 Cockerell considered that name to be erroneous and he stated the following, “The insect described as Coccus cacti by Linneo and which he received from Daniel Rolander, is a monoflébido. The description by Linneo is sufficiently complete to demonstrate that his insect was not nopal cactus cochineal.” On the other hand, Burmeister described fine cochineal in 1839 as Pseudococcus cacti, but four years earlier in 1835 O. Costa had already named it Dactylopius coccus, and so it is known to this day. Morrison clarified that the insect named by Linneo as Coccus cacti, is now known as the subfamily Monophlebinae (Margarodidae)K of the Protortoria genre.
Nowadays the carminic acid extracted from cochineal is used in lacquers and carmines that are widely used to color various foods, beverages, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, textiles and hand crafts among other things.
In Oaxaca only 15 minutes from the capitol, in the town of Santa María Coyotepec, there is a farm called Tlapanochestli where cochineal is cultivated. This is an independent project founded in 1986 and it got its name from the words Tlapalli (color), Noch (prickly pear or nopal) and Estli (blood). Silk worms are also cultivated there on a small scale along with sheep, and brown cotton (coyuchi) to make thread, also other natural colorings such as indigo, muitle (blue green), achiote (red).
Different communities of the state go to Tlapanochestli to get training and to consult on the cultivation of cochineal because one of the goals of the place is to train people in the cultivation of and the dissemination of the knowledge of cochineal and its different uses. They offer workshops on dyeing and workshops for children to learn and have fun. They also support institutions such as the National Polytechnic Institute in their biological projects.
How long cochineal has been cultivated is unknown, however, Clavijero and Humboldt have data, supposedly from the Toltec period which would have been the 10th. century.
However, it was during the Colonial period that its cultivation reached its greatest heights in Mexico. This production fell off because of various reasons during the beginning and middle of the 19th. century. One of the main reasons was the development of synthetic dyes.
Nowadays there are 150 varieties of nopal cactus, it's possible to cultivate cochineal on almost all of them, but the best to use is the nopal that goes by the scientific name of Opuntia Indicamil.
In the present coccidoculture (the cultivation of cochineal) in Mexico is in a re-growth phase of production. This was principally carried out under the Nopalteca system. However, the exploitation of this insect is still considered incipient, because the amount of nopal planted for this purpose is only around 100 hectares. In Tlapanochestli cochineal is cultivated in the traditional manner, however a controlled project is being carried out and is only possible if you have a large field of nopal. The controlled process consists in putting small baskets called Zapotec nests, which were used in the past centuries, for clean, fertile females which then infest the nopales. These leave the nests and settle wherever they like to await insemination by the males, which are flying insects and is sexually differentiated in that it dies once it has fulfilled its roll in the fertilization.
The complete cycle lasts 3 months during which the nopales are kept at a constant 27 degrees centigrade. Once the cochineal has finished the cycle the new cochineal is ready to infest other nopales or to be dried for raw materials.
The Present day
The development of this type of productive projects for cultivation of natural dyes is an extra income for many families in various communities. They may not get rich but they do have the opportunity to earn extra income.
Nowadays, there us a large market in Europe for natural dyes, however Oaxaca being the ancestral home of cochineal there have been inroads by other countries such as Peru which put the product on the market at a cheaper price because of the lack of poachers. The present day market price of cochineal is between 50 and 80 dollars per kilo and its demand is growing because of increasing evidence that artificial colorings can be hazardous. Therefore, the modern world is turning more and more to this ancient product, the blood of the gods.
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