James M. Vreeland, Jr.
Scientific American
 Apr99, Vol. 280 Issue 4, p112

One afternoon in 1971 I was struggling to work in the National Museum of Anthropology in Lima, Peru , in a small conservation laboratory that I shared with a resident population of fleas, rats, a snake and a monkey.  I was examining pre-Colombian textiles through a stereoscopic microscope, thinking about how best to preserve them.  A graduate student in archaeology, I had come to Peru several years earlier to participate in an excavation at the Chan Chan site in the northern Andes and had just returned with a modest grant from the Organization of American States to continue my studies.  Little did I know that what I would see through the microscope that day would set me off on another trail altogether.

Inside the cotton fibers' walls I noticed some intriguing dark masses that imparted color to the fabric.  Because the distinct brown spots did not appear to be the result of dye, I began to ask around at universities in Lima: Was it possible that some cotton was naturally pigmented?  The answer -- often derisively given -- was categorically no; cotton is white.  The coloration apparent in the microscope must be, the experts reasoned, the results of oxidation or of some other discoloration that came about as the now antique fabric had aged.

Unconvinced, I flew up to Trujillo, where I had worked several years before at Chan Chan with Victor Antonio Rodrigues Suy Suy, a professor of anthropology at the National University  of Trujillo and a descendant of the Mochic ethnic group.   He met me at the airport and informed me straightway that there was such a thing as naturally colored cotton.  In fact, he drove just outside the airport and pointed to land alongside the road.  In the sunken fields, which were clearly of pre-Hispanic origin, we could see rustic cotton plants clinging to the sandy soil.  Cotton plants bearing reddish fibers!  Entranced, I spent the next few months traveling the area,searching for plants and textiles with fibers that were naturally ecru, deep chocolate and many other shades of brown, and even mauve.  It was challenging work because the descendants of the Mochica Indians of the north coast guarded their plants jealously.



Nevertheless, I was hooked.  I gave up my archaeological studies, turned to ethnoarchaeology and, for the next 20 years, sought all the information I could find on naturally colored cotton in museums and libraries and at ancient sites and by talking with everyone I met.  Ultimately, the people who taught me the most were the Mochica Indians, who, some 2,000 years ago, cultivated cottons of myriad hues and who had quietly maintained some of these cultivars.

Peruvian weaving done in the plain twining fashion

Slanted variation of the the plain twining pattern

Mauve colored cotton was found growing in a few few places on Peru's north coast The plant which had been carefully cultivated and maintained over millennia, is now producing naturally colored cotton for commercial uses.  Other swatches reveal several - but by no means all - of the natural colors of cotton that have been selectively bred (above)
Before they were bred in predominantly creamy white strains centuries ago, cotton plants were well known for producing an array of colors.  But following the advent of the cotton gin and inexpensive industrial dyes, white cotton reigned supreme.  Colored plants were marginalized, surviving only in seed banks kept by some agricultural departments here and there around the world and in small, traditional communities in a handful of places, including Mexico, Guatemala and Peru.  These pigmented cottons have undergone a revival recently, and many people are now familiar with them and with organically grown white cotton.  But few people know the story of cotton in it's resplendent tones began some 5,000 years ago in the Andes.   Virtually all the colored cotton plants we in the West use commercially and interbreed today come from pre-Colombian stocks created by the indigenous peoples of South America.


A new arrival on the Western fashion market, naturally pigmented cotton originally flourished some 5,00 years ago.  It's revival today draws on stocks first developed and cultivated by Indians in South and Central America.


Ancient Practices

Five millennia ago early farming societies in the Americas selected, domesticated and improved two local species of cotton: Gossypium hirsutum and G. barbadense.  The former was cultivated in northern Central America and the Caribbean, the latter--
famous for having the longest, finest fibers of all cottons --in western South America.

The archaeological evidence regarding cotton domestication in these regions is extensive, but for brevity's sake, I will mention only some of the more important sites.  The oldest cotton fiber recorded so far in Central America comes from the Tehuacan site near Oaxaca in Mexico and was produced sometime around 2300 B.C.  Chocolate brown fibers, unique to G. barbadense, have been unearhted at the most ancient levels of Huaca Prieta, a settlement on the northern Peruvian coast that was occupied between 3100 and 1300B.C.   This chocolate brown fiber and a light-brown one can be seen in many of the fabrics made by Andean weavers, which have survived for millennia because of the arid coastal soils of northern Peru. (The dry air works to preserve the textiles, which would be damaged or destroyed by moisture.)  It appears that these colors were intentionally differentiated and bred by ancient Peruvian fisherfolk, who made nets and lines from the darker shades because they were less visible to fish-- a tradition and craft that continues today.  Despite it's extensive use from Oaxaca down through the Andes, there are no records of naturally pigmented cotton found in prehistoric sites north of Mexico.  If it was introduced through trade or even cultivated locally, the records have disappeared or the pigments have weathered.  The well known "Hopi" cotton (G. hirsutum, variety punctatum) of the Southwest is actually white or off-white, although it is possible that chemical degradation could have occurred in the surviving samples.
PERUVIAN TAPESTRY from A.D. 1000 depicts a cotton plant complete with roots, leaves, stems, flowers and ripening cotton bolls spilling forth with naturally pigmented cotton.
Traditional spinning bowl was used by some Andean Indian women, probably Inca, to set the spindle in as they plied the ball of cotton.


Later records provide more detail than the prehistoric ones do, and they clearly show that pigmented cotton was used as tribute.   Sixteenth-century Mexican documents, for instance, reveal that brown cotton constituted a principal form of payment from the lowlands peoples to the Aztecs.   Other documents indicate that when the first Spaniards crossed the Peruvian desert in 1531 they marveled at the extensive fields of cotton growing in a range of colors unlike anything they had seen.  Naturally colored cotton fabrics were among the first items collected as tribute and sold or shipped to Spanish court, and those Indian textiles were more technically sophisticated than anything woven on European looms at the end of the 15th century.

Zigzag form of twining

LINT FIBER greatly enlarged reveals the natural twist that made cotton such an easy material to spin.  The dark masses impart the natural color.

Gauze weave from the Chamcay Valley in Peru


Well-Traveled Seeds

As the New World was pried open by naturalists and merchants, cotton plants native to the Americas were transported around the world.   Other naturally pigmented cotton plants are indigenous to Africa and Asia, including G. herbaceum and G. arboreum.  Cotton has an ancient history in that part of the world as well" fibers from about 2200 B.C. have been discovered in the Indus Valley, and some from circa 2250 B.C. have turned up in Nubia.  But it seems these Old World species have short staples -- as the cotton fibers are called -- making them much harder to spin and weave.  In large part, they were ultimately displaced by the longstapled newcomers.

Modern Egyptian cotton, for example, is derived from a South American progenitor (most probably G. barbadense), which was apparently brought by slavers to northern Africa from the New World.  First described in 1820 or so, this strain originally produced a long, strong lint with a golden-brown color.  It was interbred with local plants to yield new commercial selections: ashmouni, a brown stock; maitafifi, which was darker brown, had a longer lint and gave rise to American-Egyptian yuma cotton in 1908; and, finally, what is now called pima cotton. (Pima is the name of a Native American tribe, members of which helped to grow an extra-long staple variety of G.babadense.  Pima cotton, developed in Arizona, was obtained from an Egyptian form cultivated during the past century.)

In China the native pigmented species -- the so-called Nankin varieties -- had short staples just like the original Egyptian species, but they grew only in a pale off-white color.  Although the literature is confusing on this point, it appears that 19th - century references to Nankin cotton could be describing a cultivar introduced from South and Central America.  Nevertheless, it is clear that at some point cotton plants from the Caribbean -- that is, G. hirsutum plants -- did reach China.

Colored cotton plants from the eastern Mediterranean region and Asia apparently reached the U.S. during the colonial period.  Cultivars of G. arboreum arrived, as did those of G. hirsutum and G. barbadense.  Colored cotton was hand woven and spun, and even machine woven at times, in several southern states.  In the heart of the Mississippi Delta, for example, golden -brown cotton has been grown for more than two centuries by a small group of Acadian spinners.  Despite scattered pockets of colored cotton cultivation, however, it never took off commercially in the U.S. (It appears that Hati and the former Soviet Union were the only two countries to produce colored cotton fabric on an industrial scale before the present day.  Hati did so for a short time in the 1930's, and the Soviets only when dyes were in short supply during World War II.)

The global spread of the various cotton cultivars -- called upland cotton -- followed the invention of the English spinning frame in 1769 and the cotton gin in 1794.  The industrial revolution was up and running, and with the appearance of inexpensive chemical dyes, the fate of colored cotton was sealed.








PRE-HISPANIC GRAVE in the Chancay Valley of Peru is heaped with naturally colored cotton bolls.  The ancient people of this coastal area filled the body of the deceased with the cotton, which would absorb the bodily fluids, thereby aiding in the process of mummification.  The arid sands of the region preserved the cotton (which was removed from the body when this grave was looted.)



White Supremacy

It was cheaper to use white cotton and dye it because the palette was unlimited and no specialized harvest techniques or facilities were needed, as they were for naturally pigmented cottons.  By the 1990's most indigenous, colored cotton landraces, or cultivars, grown in Africa, Asia and Central and South America were replaced by all-white, commercial varieties.

During World War II, green and brown cottons were produced for a limited time because dyes were not available.  Because Soviet farmers were producing colored cotton products, the U.S. government also instructed a famous agronomist, J.O.Ware, to study the Soviet cotton plants to determine whether they were commercially viable in the U.S.   Ware and his colleagues concluded that the green and brown cotton plants yielded too little lint that was too short in staple length.  Colored cotton was officially regulated to obscurity.  Only in a few places were people still entranced by its possibilities.
Four species of cotton have different lint lengths,  Two species found in Africa and Asia, Gossypium arboreum and G. herbaceum, come in naturally colored varieties, but both have lint lengths that range from short to medium.  The two species from South and Central America, G. barbadense and G. hirsutum, have medium to long lint lengths.











                                                                          A New Market for Old Plants

After disappearing for about a century, naturally colored cotton suddenly reappeared as a fashion item in the early 1990's. Big U.S. clothing manufactures such as Patagonia, Levi Strauss and Esprit as well as several European companies began to buy "environmentally friendly" cotton -- that is , cotton that is chemical - free.  Cotton farmers use approximately 23 per cent of the world's insecticides and 10 per cent of the world's pesticides to combat pests such as the boll weevil.  U.S. cotton farmers use some 35 percent of the total, making them the greatest consumers of cotton pesticides; India producers use the second greatest amount, nearly 11 per cent.

These insecticides and pesticides, which include malathion, aldicarb, methyl parathion, trifluralin, deltamethrin and tribufos, are some of the longest lived and most destructive.  Trifluralin, for instance, disrupts the hormonal and reproductive systems of animals, and in the U.S. tribufos is classified as a possible carcinogen.   These compounds not only harm the workers who use them but also leach into the soil, reaching groundwater, rivers and streams, killing fish and contaminating livestock.   Once it has been harvested, white cotton is usually bleached -- which involves chlorine based processes that give rise to dioxins.  The cotton is then dyed with a whole host of other chemicals, many of which include heavy metals that often end up in the waterstream.

Because of concerns about endocrine disrupters and rising cancer rates, consumers and manufacturers have increasingly been turning to organic cotton producers.  Although the specifics of certification vary from country to country, an organic producer generally can get a stamp of approval if no pesticides have been used on the land for one to three years.  (As some experts point out, however, pesticide residues are quite long-lived, and three years does not leave the soil pesticide-free.)  The movement is gaining momentum, and currently some 20,000 acres in the U.S. and in half a dozen other countries produce organic cotton, including naturally pigmented cottons that do not have to be dyed with toxic chemicals.
The resurgence of interest in naturally colored cotton has been very gratifying for me and my colleagues in Peru.  When I first started my investigations in 1977 -- sparked by those dark masses in the cotton fibers -- I was told that not only were there no naturally colored cotton plants but also that the extensive and beautiful hand-spinning and weaving traditions of northern Peru had disappeared.   So, when I went north on that seminal trip to visit Rodriguez Suy Suy it was with great satisfaction that I located plants, and ultimately, entire fields of brown cotton that peasants and Indian artisans had stubbornly maintained.

COTTON HARVESTING is done by hand in Peru

The discovery that a rich textile tradition dating from 3000 B.C. had persisted into modern times interested many people throughout Peru.  As a result, in 1982, I created and co-directed the Native Cotton Project with support from the Peruvian ministries of labor and tourism,  Those of us involved with the project worked to revive further the cultivation and use of colored cotton.  The resuscitation of this ancient tradition offered rural farmers an alternative crop to grow, but it also required the governmental reversal of a century- long policy.

My co-workers and I discovered that beginning in 1931 the Peruvian government had issued a series of laws and decrees aimed at destroying perennial, pigmented  forms of native cotton in an effort to protect the all-white varieties that were commercially viable.   Quarantine measures had been implemented over a broad swath of the Peruvian coast to eradicate cotton pests by eliminating all the possible alternative plant hosts, including landraces of colored cotton, the Peruvian kapok tree (Bombas discolor) and even a lintless cotton (G. raimondii).  Pesticides were liberally applied, and the long-standing, successful tradition of crop rotation was abandoned.

Women then sort the cotton, also by hand, for color and quality.

Although the pest -control program had proved to be an expensive and misbegotten failure, it was still being adhered to in the 1980's. with devastating consequences.  Much of the genetic variation present earlier in the century had been irreversibly eroded, abandoned by Indian farmers or suppressed by a legion of new plant pathogens that arose after the massive pesticide application.  Even the survival of the commercial all-white cotton was severely threatened.  In 1990 a Peruvian "environmental code" finally made the eradication practice illegal.  But pesticides remain pervasive.  In the 1990's the annual consumption of pesticides in Peru reached an all-time high: about 18 pounds (eight kilograms) of pesticides were used per person per year, although experts say that only 1 per cent of the insect pest damage is being controlled even now.

Slowly, over the past decade or so, we have been able to rebuild the stock of naturally colored cotton.  Today the Native Cotton Project maintains 75 landraces of white and naturally pigmented cottons.  Some 15,000 peasants and Indians who grow these cottons in dozens of plots throughout Peru are by far the largest single group of naturally colored lint producers worldwide.

The majority of them use organic methods, removing large pests by hand (children often drown the bugs in a water-filled jar) and growing plants that repel the insects.   These techniques are pre-Colombian in origin.  Archaeological sites from A.D. 1250 show that cotton was grown in rotation with cucurbits, a food crop in the squash family.  In addition, ancient soil samples reveal the presence of pollen grains from another plant, Lippia.  These seeds came from a weedy shrub, thought by most farmers to be useless.  But years of questioning indigenous farmers turned up an octogenarian who identified the plant as mastrante.  He grew it in a row next to his native cotton plants to control a pest called the cotton stainer (Dysdercus peruvianus).  The old farmer did this by periodically cutting down several mastrante plants, drying them in the sun and, when the wind was right, igniting them.  Pungent smoke from the desiccated shrubs wafted through the cotton fields, instantly driving out the cotton stainers, which ruin cotton by puncturing the seeds, releasing oils that stain the boll.

Finally, the cotton is ginned.  The gins shown here were designed and patented in England over a century ago.  Although they still work admirably well, most have been replaced recently by modern gins.





The Native Cotton Project grew steadily, and in 1993 we were contacted by a textile company in Arequipa that wanted to market naturally colored cotton products internationally.  Our brand name became Pakucho )"brown cotton" in the ancient Inca language), and we now produce colored cotton products and textiles.  The cotton is labeled organic by Skal, a Dutch inspection organization.   Colored cotton is organic and drug-free: it is a lucrative cash crop for farmers who have been under pressure to convert their land to coca production for cocaine.

There are many revival efforts that resemble those of Pakucho and the Native Cotton Project.  In the hills of Santander in Colombia, for instance, a small group of student-led peasant producers has brought back  native cotton spinning and weaving as a rural development project.  In the highlands of Guatemala the Ixchel Museum of Guatemala City is leading a revival project in communities where brown cotton, or ixcoco, was traditionally spun until the practice almost died out.   And in Bolivian Oriente, the Chiquitano Indians hope revive organic cotton cultivation as well.

Indeed, the future of colored cotton looks bright in many places.  It has attained near-celebrity status in the U.S. and Europe.  And this year Peru's naturally pigmented and organically grown cotton exports will exceed $15 million -- only fitting because many thousands of years ago the Americans were the wellspring for virtually all the colored cotton we know and enjoy today.


COTTON CLOTHES in naturally occurring colors are produced in Peru by the author and his colleagues and sold internationally under the brand name Pakucho.  Pakucho means "brown cotton" in the ancient Inca language.



 MOCHE: A PERUVIAN COASTAL COMMUNITY John Gillin, Institute of Social Anthropology, Publication No. 3, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., U.S. Government Printing Office, 1947


NATURALLY COLORED AND ORGANICALLY GROWN COTTONS: ANTHROPOLOGICAL AND HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVES. J.M.Vreeland in Proceedings of the 1993 Beltwide Cotton Conferences.  National Cotton Council of America, 1993

COTTON J.E. Wendel in Evolution of Crop Plants, Edited by J. Smartt and N.W. Simmonds John Wiley & Sons, 1995


By James M. Vreeland, Jr.

JAMES M. VREELAND, JR, has been conducting research on the ancient textiles of Peru since 1968.  He first discovered naturally colored cotton in Peru in 1977, while doing research for his doctoral studies at the University of Texas at Austin under the guidance of Richard P. Schaedel.  Since that discovery. he has worked to understand the survival of the 5,000 year old resource, as well as to ensure its revival among Peruvian Indian and peasant farmers and artisans.  He wishes to thank his many sponsors, including the Social Science Research Council, the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research and the National Science and Technology Council of Peru.  


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