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Indigenous Knowledge and Breeding of Cochineal Insects in Eighteenth-Century Colonial Mexico

Deirdre Moore, Harvard University, William R. Tyler Fellow 2015–2017

I was fortunate to find my topic on cochineal insects in the Rare Book Reading Room in 2013. My dissertation investigates the historically complex breeding process involved in raising cochineal insects for dye in the colonial period. I explore how cochineal was understood by indigenous inhabitants and discuss the importance of specific plants, environments, and landscapes. Native peoples had developed an intricate set of practices, highly dependent on local geography, to ensure cochineal’s survival. I have also researched the contrast between native understandings of cochineal and colonial European approaches using early modern books, images, archival resources, and my own experience raising cochineal insects in Oaxaca, Mexico. Bound up in this history of cochineal farming are questions about the legitimacy of local science, indigenous knowledge, and the anthropology of science and technology. In addition, the fellowship allowed me to research Hans Sloane’s involvement in networks of knowledge about cochineal at the Natural History Museum, the Royal Society, and the British Library in the United Kingdom. As a result of my research at Dumbarton Oaks, I have been able to research and plan the majority of my dissertation.