Red Gold of The Mixtec
Cochineal Production in Oaxaca
Stefanie Tietz
What is cochineal???
Cochineal is a small insect…
Which belongs to:
..or more specifically
• Scientific classification:
• Domain: Eukaryota
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Arthropoda
Class: Insecta
Order: Homoptera
Superfamily: Coccoidea
Family: Dactylopiidae
Genus: Dactylopius
Species: coccus
Binomial name: Dactylopius coccus costa, 1835
It is a parasite on cacti of the genus
The females cluster together on the
cactus leaf feeding on its juices
The male lives only long enough to
fertilize the females (Many, many
• After the eggs hatch, the male nymphs produce a
white sticky substance which they use to have the
wind blow them to another cactus.
• Males will then develop wings in order to be able
to find females.
• Females crawl to a good spot on the leaf (Usually
surrounding their mother) and bite into it where
they will stay until laying their eggs after they
have been fertilized.
What makes these insects so
• Females and eggs produce a bitter, astringent
chemical substance that is a predator
• This substance is called carminic acid or
• It is particularly effective against ants.
• The pyralid moth (Laetilia coccidivora) eats
cochineal and stores carminic acid in its gut to
repel predatory ants.
Carminic Acid
Carminic acid is bright red…
Photo credit: Stefanie Tietz
…but you have to crush the bug to get
the “juice”…
Photo credit: Stefanie Tietz
Cochineal is grown in special farms…
Photo credit: Stefanie Tietz
…or get harvested in the wild.
The bugs are collected and dried bugs
are ground up…
And then the powder can be stored
and used as needed
Photo credit : Stefanie Tietz
Cochineal is best for dyeing natural
fibers such as wool and silk.
Which can then be made into textiles
or rugs.
Photo credit: Stefanie Tietz
An example of different hues (on right)
Photo credit: Stefanie Tietz
Cochineal color (Carmine) is
Water- soluble
Resists degradation over time
Light and heat stable
Generally considered to be more stable than
most synthetic dyes.
• Neither toxic nor carcinogenic (but can cause
anaphylatic shock in allergic individuals)
Because it is non-toxic it can be used
as food coloring
Photo credit : Stefanie Tietz
As well as in cosmetics
• Has been harvested in Mexico since about
1200 BC (In Peru since 1500 BC).
• The Mixtec people were valued by the Spanish
after the conquest for their skill in cochineal
• It was highly prized by the Spaniards and in
value considered second to silver.
• It was used as currency both by indigenous
rulers, as well as Spanish conquerors.
Ancient codex showing tribute
payments due in cochineal
codex Mendoza folio 43
The Mixtec
• Nochiztlan was a major Mixtec center and
source for cochineal in pre-Hispanic times. The
name means “Place of cactus blood”.
• Coixtlahuaca: Seat of Mixtec royal power and
focus of important manuscripts and maps.
(Codices). Mayor trading center for cochineal.
One little bug…
So very important in history!
Rodriguez, L.C., Mendez, M.A. Niemeyer, H.M.( 2001)Direction of dispersion
of cochineal within the Americas. Antiquity, March, 2001 retrieved from:

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