The Oaks News
Deirdre Moore on Cochineal Insect Cultivation in Eighteenth-Century Mexico
Deirdre Moore grows her own bugs. On the broad, mitt-like pads of prickly pear cacti, carefully cultivated fuzzballs house the illusive insect known as the cochineal. On October 31, Moore, a 2015–17 Tyler fellow in Garden and Landscape Studies, delivered a talk entitled “Indigenous Knowledge and Breeding of Cochineal Insects in Eighteenth-Century Colonial Mexico,” which traced her research into cultivation practices and the economics of the cochineal market.
As Moore explained, cochineal were valued in centuries past for the red dye extracted from their ground-up bodies. Throughout the eighteenth century, the cochineal was aggressively grown in Mexico, especially the province of Oaxaca, which boasted one of the few climes favorable to large-scale cochineal farming. Eventually, it became one of the first truly transcontinental cash crops, dying everything from Oaxacan wool to the red coats of the British military.
Yet northern European understandings of cochineal were only hazy at best. The intelligentsia hotly debated whether the cochineal was a bug or a plant (the dried insect resembles a crunchy, long-deceased pea). Moore’s research has sought to compare Oaxacan expertise in cochineal farming with the bevy of European misunderstandings wrought by the cochineal trade.
A Brief Q&A with Deirdre Moore
What is the actual ink-making process like? There’s a long period in which it’s a really popular dye—but are there any evolutions in the process during that time?
There were three traditional ways of curing these insects. You can boil them—killing them by immersing them in hot water and then drying them—or you can toast them as you would normally toast your corn, or you can dry them in the sun. Different areas within the Oaxacan region preferred different methods -possibly for climatic reasons. During the eighteenth century, there was pressure from colonial authorities to try to standardize the way cochineal was cured. Archival records indicate that these colonial authorities preferred cochineal to be dried in the sun because they thought there was less opportunity for fraud and adulteration of the end product. But drying in the sun often ended up being a more lengthy curing process. Also, if you dry cochineal in the sun, sometimes the insects will give birth to their babies before dying. Then the product is less valuable since the weight decreases and it is mixed with baby cochineal dust. So there was a certain amount of resistance from some growers. Of course, the concerns about fraud and adulteration were also real. Some people even made fake cochineal by passing wet clay through a fine mesh, drying the result and then mixing it with cochineal to bring up the weight of their product. Various types of adulteration were common during the eighteenth century.
In terms of the actual dyeing, I was surprised when I watched the process. I assumed it would be a fairly set recipe, but it was very ad hoc. The local weaver and his wife whom I visited, ground up their dried cochineal and then appeared to add things at whim. They were mostly using baking soda as a mordant but it was not measured out with the precision one might imagine dyeing textiles would involve. They also disagreed with each other frequently about what shade of red they wanted and how much of this and how much of that to put in to dye their wool. There were a couple of hours where they were periodically adding fistfuls of things. They were changing the color as it developed. Every batch they make ends up being a different shade of red. The colors they ended up with were beautiful.
The other thing that surprised me was that they were using copper and various other metal implements, and of course metals can affect the colors of dyes. When I asked them about this they said, “No, no, not at all,” the types of metal weren’t going to have any kind of effect. But they did tell me that a women once came to visit while they were dyeing with cochineal. When they put the wool in the pot it turned brown instead of red. So they asked this woman, “Are you pregnant?” And she said yes, and they asked her to move further away. They dipped the wool again, and it turned orange. Then they asked her to leave altogether, but they said they never got a good red on that occasion. This kind of scenario does appear in a variety of texts in other places in the world—the idea that an unborn baby has an effect on the dyeing process.
A question that came up after your talk asked about the social aspect of cochineal production. What are the social issues or changes that spring up along with the market?
Well, from the very beginning of the colonial period, right after the conquest in the early 1500s, a lot of social problems arose around cochineal. You have people who were previously subsistence farmers suddenly making an extraordinary amount of money selling cochineal to the Spaniards. In the tradition of the newly wealthy everywhere, they’re carrying on poorly, buying all sorts of alcohol, getting drunk on Sunday, wearing all the best clothes, and buying the best thick chocolate. There’s even an anecdote—that these get-rich-quick folk were served the thin chocolate more commonly drunk by the lower-classes—and threw it out on the ground in front of their hosts. The moral outrage from their social superiors, who recorded these behaviors, is still palpable over four centuries later.
Moving on into the eighteenth century, you see a continuation of the social problems caused by cochineal wealth. It’s a cash crop, and people are making a bit of money off it comparatively. Many farmers chose to grow less corn since cochineal was more profitable. There are entire areas where the authorities complain that locals are not growing food. With the arrival of a larger market some people stopped growing corn altogether, because they could buy food with the profit they were making off the cochineal and still have money left over. There was a manuscript that I mentioned in my talk in which a priest tells his bishop in the eighteenth century, “I can’t even get the children to come to school, because they’re all growing cochineal.” Cochineal is widely assumed to have had a significant long-term effect on the history of Oaxaca. Currently, Oaxaca remains the area of Mexico with the most indigenous people still living on their traditional lands and speaking native languages. That is less common in many other states in Mexico. In many cases people had to move away from their traditional areas much earlier on for economic reasons. Cochineal was a cash crop that was viable and lucrative even when it was grown on small plots with poor soil. In certain cases, those circumstances allowed people to stay on their land.
What is the spread of cochineal today? Where are they located? Where are they still being farmed?
Currently, the vast majority of cochineal is being grown in Peru, and—this is interesting—a large proportion is still coming from smaller areas of cultivation. There is a large plantation in Chile. A much smaller proportion of the global supply of cochineal comes from the Canary Islands, Botswana, and other areas. Very little comes from Mexico these days. There are two lines of thought on domesticated cochineal in Mexico. One is that it arrived in Mexico—that it evolved in Peru and somehow was transferred in the Pre-Columbian period. But one of the strongest arguments for cochineal evolving in Mexico rather than Peru is that domesticated cochineal has a lot of coevolved parasites preying on it that are local to the southern Mexican landscape. Frequently, when you see a relationship like that it indicates that the biological entity evolved over a long period of time in the same area as its parasites. This is also why it is often easier for plants and insects to flourish, or even become invasive, in areas where they are not native. Competition with a large population of parasites makes it much more difficult to grow and tend to cochineal in Mexico. There was a lot of skill involved in knowing how to grow native cochineal and deal with the many parasites of cochineal in the Mesoamerican landscape. During the early nineteenth century, people started trying to develop an industry of domesticated cochineal in Guatemala. Certain reports indicate that the venture did not succeed until native Oaxacans were sent along with the cochineal to teach the local population insect growing skills. They kind of end up stealing Oaxaca’s thunder. Guatemalan exports of cochineal surge and Oaxacan exports slump. The viability of growing cochineal in other areas eventually caused Oaxaca to lose its monopoly. I’m fascinated by the transfer process because it involved local knowledge and understanding of the life cycle and predators of cochineal.
Tyler Fellow John Davis Creates Online Map of the D.C. Watershed
As in so many other cities, water is everywhere in Washington, D.C.—and yet it remains largely invisible to most of us, taken for granted or ignored. But D.C.’s waterways and plumbing shape the civic, social, and even commercial lives of its residents just as much now as in the past: the Anacostia, the Potomac, the C&O Canal, Rock Creek. And the crisis in Flint, Michigan, has shown that the questions of where and how cities find their water have tremendous importance for public health, down to the last pipe.
“It’s interesting to be able to visualize things that aren’t always apparent when you’re walking around the city,” says John Davis, Tyler fellow in Garden and Landscape Studies. “It’s a totally different conception of how the city works.” During his time at Dumbarton Oaks, Davis, a PhD candidate in history at Harvard working on the history of engineering and infrastructure, has created a digital atlas of Washington, D.C.’s watershed. The “Water Atlas,” as he calls it, shows the development of the city’s water infrastructure over time, from large features like canals to the sewer grid and water treatment facilities.
Unlike a traditional atlas on paper, the online atlas gives the user a clearer sense of the relationship in scale between a city block and the course of an entire river. It also facilitates visualizing changes over time in layers or phases, rather than having to combine those phases into a single diagram or distribute them over several maps. Davis’s atlas further highlights how different the city’s landscape might have looked if certain rejected projects had been realized. One area of the map allows viewers to see how a proposed dam on the Rock Creek would have created an enormous reservoir in the north part of the city.
Davis created the Water Atlas using a free open-source application called QGIS, which is widely used for cartography. By tracing information from scans of historic maps found in archives onto existing geospatial data from the United States Geographic Survey, he was able to create a single digital composite that could illustrate changes over time. Davis says that he could imagine this approach being adopted to illustrate infrastructural history for any city: “Every city has documents and maps—the exciting project is assembling the paper data and then digitizing it.” Indeed, he adds, if you had such data for multiple cities, the payoff for historians would be that you could “compare cities and their infrastructures.”
Davis hopes that the Water Atlas will be useful for both the general public and professional researchers, and also that it might help bring the two groups together. Asked to envision an audience for the project, he describes “a range of people, from academics, or people who have an academic interest in D.C. history, to people in the D.C. area who might be curious about how their water gets to them.” It’s important for academics to invest time in projects like this, he notes, because of the likelihood that the skills of cartography and digital publication will continue to be important to future work in history and the humanities: “Digital maps increase accessibility. You don’t have to go to a library to use them.”
Davis and Dumbarton Oaks hope to release the Water Atlas to the public by the end of the summer. Please watch this space for updates about the project in the months ahead!
Aleksandar Shopov studied history at the Ss. Cyril and Methodius University in Skopje. His MA in History is from Sabancı University in Istanbul. Currently he is a PhD candidate at Harvard in the joint program of CMES and History Department. His dissertation is on the creation, transfer, and implementation of horticultural knowledge in the Eastern Mediterranean in the early Modern period. Over the past three years he has been conducting research in the manuscript libraries and archives in Turkey, Egypt, the Balkans, and France, where he worked on Ottoman-Turkish, Arabic, and Slavic sources.
By analyzing Ottoman and Arabic horticultural manuals and documents, he is focusing on Ottoman scientific thinking about agriculture in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. He is also actively involved in the preservation of one of the oldest urban agricultural spaces in the world, the Yedikule vegetable gardens within Istanbul’s city walls, which have been tilled in continuity since antiquity.
Excerpts from Aleksandar's article, published in the Turkish magazine Bir + Bir in July 2013 during the destruction of the Yedikule gardens.
Last winter I wrote in Express about the interdependence between the silhouette of Istanbul and the now-destroyed vegetable gardens (bostans) in Langa (Yenikapi).
I referred in that article to an Ottoman archival document, dating from 1585, which stated that eighteen bostans in the Langa district belonged to the endowment (vakıf) of Suleymaniye mosque. Famous in the memories of old Istanbuliots for its Langa cucumbers, the neighborhood, which supplied the city since the sixteenth century with fresh produce, but these days is the construction site for the new Yenikapi metro station. The Suleymaniye mosque, which forms part of Istanbul's celebrates silhouette, is suffering a similar fate; soon it will be hidden by the rising, massive towers of a new metro bridge. The construction of bridges and metro stations in Istanbul is occurring on sites that signify centuries-old connections between city gardens, plants, animals, and people. As the old silhouette of the city, together with the memory of the Langa cucumbers, disappears behind the steal and concrete, it will be harder to recall that once this city depended on vegetables and fruits grown in the city proper.
The current pollution of the Yedikule bostans (market gardens), which are among the most important agricultural sites for understanding change in Byzantine and Ottoman agricultural technology, is actually the destruction of one of the world’s oldest agricultural spaces with continuous agricultural activity since antiquity. There is much that Byzantine historians can tell us about this agricultural land and as a student in Ottoman agricultural history I can confirm that we possess hundreds of documents and maps from the Ottoman period that record the existence of agricultural land within Istanbul’s city walls at the exact place between Yedikule Gate (Yedikule kapı) and Belgrade Gate (Belgrad kapı) where market gardens today are being filled with rubble (moloz). One such example is the map by J. B. Le Chevalier (1786) which recorded the space between Yedikule and Silivri gates as Ismail Paşa bahçesi (orchard) and Horoz bahçesi.
According to an ottoman defter from 1734, in the region around the Yedikule fortress and Belgrade gate 140 seasonal gardens from western Macedonia worked in 29 bustans (vegetable gardens, orchards).
What is at risk of being lost is not only the space with its ancient water-wells and, in one of the bostans, a stable (ahır) and wooden (ahşap) house recorded in the Ottoman maps from the nineteenth century, but also a link to the past. The generation of gardeners who are able to produce hundreds of tons of vegetable and fruit in the middle of the city are currently being evicted from the Yedikule bostans have learned their gardening techniques from the older generation of Istanbul gardeners, most of them from Ottoman Macedonia and Albania. The preservation and support of this living connection to the past needs to be seen as part of the attempt to create a new kind of city.
In 2010, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection inaugurated a new pre-doctoral fellowship scheme, the William R. Tyler Fellowships. Eligible applicants are Harvard graduate students working on dissertations in art history, archaeology, history, or literature of the Pre-Columbian or Mediterranean/Byzantine worlds. The Fellowship funds a first year of research travel overseas and a second year in residence at Dumbarton Oaks to complete the dissertation and contribute to an institutional project that is related to the fellows’ research. We are pleased to introduce two members of the first cohort of Tyler Fellows in Byzantine Studies, who have been in residence at Dumbarton Oaks since the fall of 2012.
Assimilation of Byzantine Art in the West of the Late Twelfth Century
I am a doctoral student at Harvard University’s Department of History of Art and Architecture, writing my dissertation on the assimilation of Byzantine visual properties and objects into Western art during the late twelfth century. As a second-year Tyler Fellow at Dumbarton Oaks, I also have the privilege of working with Museum Director Gudrun Bühl on an institutional project: the creation of an online exhibit that will accompany and supplement an on-site exhibition of four New Testament manuscripts in the Dumbarton Oaks Museum collection. The exhibition will open in April 2013, in conjunction with the Byzantine Studies Symposium “The New Testament in Byzantium.” All four manuscripts are being digitized for display on the Dumbarton Oaks website. Textual, iconographic, and comparative analyses of the manuscripts will accompany the online exhibit, to provide a contextual and historical perspective that will both enhance the museum experience and make these masterpieces available to distant viewers.
Frontier Spaces: Imagining Eastern Europe, 800–1000
I am a graduate student in the Department of History at Harvard University, working on a dissertation on Slavic borderlands between the eighth and tenth centuries. Specifically, I analyze the imagination and representation of Byzantium’s Balkan frontier and the Carolingian/Ottonian eastern frontier, drawing on written sources as well as archeological finds.
As a second year Tyler Fellow, I have the opportunity to contribute to the Dumbarton Oaks online catalogue of Byzantine lead seals. Several thousand of the 17,000 lead seals in the Dumbarton Oaks collection carry geographical information indicating the location where they were struck. My task is to create an interactive digital map of these several thousand seals, to be added to the online catalogue. The map will enable not only the localization of individual seals, but also a visualization of searches across time, space, as well as title and office of the seal owner.
Kuba Kabala, "Frontier Spaces: Eastern Europe, 800–1000 A.D."
In 2010, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection inaugurated a new pre-doctoral fellowship scheme, the William R. Tyler Fellowships. Eligible applicants are Harvard graduate students working on dissertations in art history, archaeology, history, or literature of the Pre-Columbian or Mediterranean/Byzantine worlds. The Fellowship funds a first year of research travel overseas and a second year in residence at Dumbarton Oaks to complete the dissertation and contribute to an institutional project that is related to the fellows’ research. We are pleased to introduce Kuba Kabala, who is part of the first cohort of Tyler Fellows arriving at Dumbarton Oaks in the fall of 2012. Kuba writes:
I am writing my dissertation on the emergence and development of the Slavic world between Byzantium and Latin Christendom during the ninth and tenth centuries. My research is in large part a philological and archaeological analysis of Slavic borderlands: Byzantium’s northern frontier on the one hand and the Carolingian/Ottonian eastern frontier on the other. I take a two-pronged approach. First, I investigate how Byzantines, Slavs, and Latin westerners imagined and understood borders and space in their written works, how this imagination developed over time, and how it differed across the languages of my sources: Greek, Slavonic, and Latin. Second, I am studying the ninth- and tenth-century archaeological remains of the area to trace movement, contact, and confrontation in the borderlands. I am spending 2011–2012 as a visiting scholar at the Institute of Archaeological Sciences at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität in Frankfurt am Main. Early in the fall I worked briefly on the excavation of Tarquimpol, a fortified city near the late antique Roman border in France. The library of the Römisch-Germanische Kommission has provided a great environment especially for my archaeological research. I continue to build geodatabases of archaeological finds in the Slavic borderlands, including Byzantine coin finds in ninth- and tenth-century Bulgaria, a subject I began to investigate at the Dumbarton Oaks Coins & Seals Summer School in 2011.
Lisa Trever, "Moche Mural Painting and Practice at Pañamarca: A Study of Image Making in Ancient Peru"
In 2010, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection inaugurated a new pre-doctoral fellowship scheme, the William R. Tyler Fellowships. Eligible applicants are Harvard graduate students working on dissertations in art history, archaeology, history, or literature of the Pre-Columbian or Mediterranean/Byzantine worlds. Lisa Trever, the fourth of our incoming Tyler Fellows, is a Pre-Columbianist studying Moche murals. She writes:
"My dissertation project is an art historical study of the mural paintings found within the adobe temples of the late Moche center of Pañamarca (c. 600–900 CE), located on the north-central coast of Peru. Mine is a contextualized study of the relationships between painted images and architectural spaces that includes mural paintings known since the mid-twentieth century and others discovered by my dissertation fieldwork. Continued analysis in 2011–12 focuses on visual and stratigraphic analysis of the multiple, superimposed layers of painting observed on temple walls as well as residue analysis of liquids splashed on the walls as libations. The paintings of Pañamarca form part of an ancient Moche visual and ritual tradition wherein mimesis and pictorial narrative were central representational concepts. I ground this study in a discussion of the philosophical foundations of mimesis, both in the west and as might be recovered from visual and material evidence that underscores the importance of corporeality and embodiment in ancient Moche artistic and ritual practice. I interpret the Pañamarca paintings as images to be seen, experienced, and physically engaged with in real social spaces and during different moments in time. In particular this study analyzes the phenomenological effects and performative capabilities of canonical Moche mural paintings within the site’s Ceremonial Plaza, Platform II, and newly discovered Recinto de los Pilares Pintados. These temple paintings served to model ritual behavior and embody religious doctrine as they effectively participated in the instantiation of the late Moche presence at the southern frontier.