All three, the Maya, Inca, and Aztec used the tiny coccid insect to produce the brilliant color of crimson. This color dye, which is called cochineal, became an important trade item between the New World and Europe. It became so valuable in the New World that only gold and silver were worth more. The coccid insects only grow where there are prickly pear cactus. It is believed that the Mayans started harvesting them more than 2000 years ago. The process is fairly simple, dye makers start by selecting only the female bugs that have reached between 2 to 5 millimeters in length. Next they are boiled, dried, and ground into powder. Not only did they get the color red, but they also were able to make the colors pink, purple, and orange.
The Mayans were the dye masters of Mesoamerica, and it is believed that they taught the Aztecs. Both the Maya and the Inca used genipa seeds to create the color black. They also produced the color purple or lavender from the murex mollusks that were found on the seacoast. Dye makers rubbed two of the mollusks together in order to extract the dye.
Eyewitness accounts by the first Spanish Conquistadors tell us that the Guatemalan and El Salvador Mayans wore clothing made from brilliant rich colors. When Hernan Cortes and his men visited the great marketplaces of Tenochtitlan they discovered cochineal dyed textiles and rabbit fur yarn. They could not believe the quality of the colors. At that time, in Europe, the color red was extremely expensive and could only be obtained from Asia, or from the root of the common bedstraw weed. Cortes and his men knew that they had discovered something significant, and before long the color would find itself all over Europe. It was even used to make British “red coats” during the Revolutionary War. Exportation of cochineal began to decline in the 1870's. Today, cochinal is used in the making of cosmetics, coloring meats, and the making of alcoholic beverages.
Food dyes were also popular in the Maya, Inca, and Aztec cultures. The Maya extensively used a vegetable dye called alchol. Alchol was also use to produce the color red in textiles. Today, this plant is used to dye margarine. The most popular beer in the Inca Empire was made from purple corn. The Inca called it, “Skcully Zea Mays.” Today, the anthcyanan that is found in the purple corn is still sold throughout the world, and it is grown exclusively in Peru.