Red All Over: How a Tiny Bug Changed the Way We See the World

by Matthew Innis |

One hundred seventy thousand years ago, our cave-dwelling ancestors ground up clay laced with iron oxide and covered their bodies, painted their walls, and encased their dead with the rich red of ochre. And over the thousands of years that followed, artists and shamans, merchants and manufacturers, and wild-eyed scientists and entrepreneurs have crushed red out of rock, squeezed it out of clay, pounded roots called madder, and finally ground dried insects known as kermes to create the color of luck, power, fertility, immortality, and invincibility. None were perfect, yet the world made do. That is until Hernán Cortés arrived in present-day Mexico in 1519.

Cortés, never one to miss a detail that might please his sponsors back in Madrid, noticed that the Aztec elite made use of a brilliant red that seemed even redder and deeper than the kermes that was used across most of Europe. Further investigation. . .

Continue Reading at Humanities:  The Magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanties

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