17 Nov. 2023 — 12:00 noon — GAR 4.100

Diana Heredia

“Imperfect Reds, or How Wild Cochineal Became a Commercial and Natural Category in Early Modern Hispanic Commerce”

The dried and crushed bodies of the parasitic insect Dactylopius coccus were one of the most coveted substances for textile dyeing in the world for roughly three centuries. Known as grana fina or fine cochineal, this red-bearing dye insect has long been acknowledged as one of the most valuable agricultural exports of the Spanish Empire, reaching its production peak towards the mid-eighteenth century in New Spain. Yet when cochineal began to be commodified in the sixteenth century, there was no “wild” counterpart to fine cochineal. The distinction of fine and wild cochineal only began to emerge in the seventeenth century when royal officials, bureaucrats and traders reflected on the viability of geographical expansion of cochineal cultivation. This paper investigates how wild and fine cochineal became commercial and agricultural categories in the early modern Hispanic world and superseded earlier geographical markers such as grana, panuco, tascala or grana misteca. The dyad of fine and wild cochineal was purposefully employed to fend off projects of expansion and preserve a standardized fine cochineal from a single area, in this case the Mixteca region in present-day Oaxaca. By exploring the commercial vocabulary used in merchants’ reports and viceregal correspondence from sixteenth- and seventeenth-century New Spain, this paper shows how wild cochineal captured a century-long process of testing commercially profitable nature, agricultural methods, and colonial economic systems. It thus offers a reflection of how wild species and varieties became visible as a result of the interplay between commerce and descriptions of the natural world.


Diana Heredia is a doctoral candidate in the University of Texas History Department. Originally trained as a biologist, she has worked on the history of science and colonialism since 2012. Her current work focuses on dye cultivation and commerce as a way to explore early modern Hispanic extractive practices, knowledge production, and material culture.