The mystery of the thousand-year-old blue color of the Mayans

How many times have you looked at your favorite pair of blue jeans and wished it never faded? Unfortunately that never happens no matter how hard you try to keep it. However, it is a fact that, since ancient times, the Maya people have created a special blue dye that, after more than hundreds of years is still bright, called ” Maya Blue”.

The Mayans were an advanced indigenous agricultural community, residing in an area stretching from central Mexico to Honduras. This area is completely hidden from the rest of the world.

After the Spanish conquest (1511-1697), much of the Mayan literary treasure was destroyed, with only a handful of works that were found during their expedition by John Stephen Lloyd and Fredrick Catherwood. in ancient Mesoamerica in 1839.

The detailed descriptions and illustrations of the two explorers have inspired many archaeologists and explorers, one of which is Edward Herbert Thompson. He and his crew began the expedition in the late 1890s.

Thompson chose to settle on a plantation near El Castillo (aka Kukulcan Temple) in the Chichen Itza ruins (one of the Wonders of the World) for exploration. He also often goes to this relic site to observe. On one such occasion in March 1904, he felt as if there was a Cenote (sacred well) nearby that was “beckoning to him”.

The mystery of the thousand-year-old blue color of the Mayans
El Castillo belongs to the Chichen Itza ruins very close to the sacred well – where the ruins of Maya blue were discovered.

He decided to dredge this sacred well with the help of locals and hired a Greek diver to help investigate the bottom of the well. In the process of dredging, they discovered something strange: human skeletons, some pottery, jewelry and especially a mysterious 14-foot layer of blue sediment.

The mystery of the thousand-year-old blue color of the Mayans
The crane was used by Edward Thompson to excavate the sacred well.

The objects were then sent to Harvard’s Peabody Museum, the Field Museum of Natural History, and many other research institutions. The investigation of dredged objects and ruins of the Mayan civilization has revealed many truths that have been buried deep in time.

In 1931, HE Merwin, a materials scientist, tested blue paint on a mural at the Temple of the Warriors in Yucatan. He became the first to discover the colorfastness of this new blue paint. Then, in 1942, an American chemist named Rutherford J. Gettens coined the term “Maya Blue”. This marked the beginning of an investigation into the high-fastness blue dye.

The mystery of the thousand-year-old blue color of the Mayans
A Maya Blue painted mural was discovered in Mexico in 1946.

Studies have revealed that Maya Blue first appeared in AD 800. This color is believed to be part of the Mayan cultural structure.

The Maya depended heavily on agriculture, performing many rituals to please Chahk , their rain god. One of such customs is to give the deity jewelry, pottery, and sometimes even people. It is believed that blue dye was prepared as part of the ritual, and offerings were painted blue before they were thrown into the sacred cenote. This may explain the presence of blue sediment at the bottom of the well.

The mystery of the thousand-year-old blue color of the Mayans
Chahk – Mayan god of rain.

Research shows that the basic ingredients of Maya Blue dye include: copal resin (a type of tree resin) , indigo extracted from plants and palygorskite clay (a type of magnesium-aluminum clay).

Scientists discovered these ingredients in a ceramic pot in the Field Museum. Accordingly, copal plastic sticks on the pot with white and blue patches. When scanned under an electron microscope, traces of indigo and palygorskite were detected.

The mystery of the thousand-year-old blue color of the Mayans
Palygorskite clay, Copal resin (center) and indigo stick on the hand of an indigo picker.

Scientists believe that the Mayans extracted indigo from the indigo plant, mixed it with palygorskite clay and heated it slowly with Copal resin, which also helps bind the ingredients together.

Maya blue leans more towards turquoise . Part of Maya Blue is the compound Dehydroindigo. This is an oxidized form of indigo, the ratio of this compound will determine if the resulting color will be turquoise blue or dark green.

Maya Blue, despite being hundreds of years old, is still bright and doesn’t fade much.

It is resistant not only to environmental and biological factors but also to chemical processing. This color shows no signs of decomposition when exposed to boiling nitric acid, strong solvents and bases, remaining the same color even at very high temperatures (up to 25°C).

In addition to the special properties mentioned above, there is another reason why this green color attracts the curiosity of historians and scientists.

In fact, blue pigment is so rare in nature that most ancient languages don’t even have a word for blue. So what about the color of the sky, the ocean, or the wings of beautiful butterflies? In fact, the sky and ocean are blue due to the scattering property of light. So most of the blue we see in nature is a form of structural color and not from a blue pigment.

The mystery of the thousand-year-old blue color of the Mayans
Many ancient languages did not have a word for the color blue.

The Egyptians are considered to be the first to create inorganic blue using sand, copper, and lime, but the Egyptian formula for blue has been lost over time.

Later, someone discovered Lapiz Lazuli – a precious mineral naturally found in the Kokcha River Valley (Afganistan). This mineral is ground to obtain a dark blue pigment (ultramarine). Blue has since gradually become a much sought-after pigment, associated with gods and royalty. The rarity makes it more expensive than gold.

Indigo is inherently a less stable pigment that easily degrades when exposed to light and other elements of nature. However, when heated with palygorskite clay and copal resin , a guest-host system (guest-host system) is produced , which preserves the color for a long time.

Palygorskite clay has a layered framework that creates a tetrahedral lattice. This network contains water molecules and can absorb other molecules when there is a gap. When heated slowly, the water molecules in the clay evaporate, making room for the indigo molecules to enter the lattice.

The mystery of the thousand-year-old blue color of the Mayans
Fun meme about Maya blue molecules protecting shields.

After the heating stops, the indigo molecules outside the lattice act as “gatekeepers” , locking the color molecules inside. The clay structure also acts as a “steel shield” , preventing biochemical agents from reacting with the color molecules.

Unfortunately, researchers are still unclear about the actual molecular binding and exact composition of the Maya blue dye. Even so, more than half a decade of research into the nanostructural aspects of dyes has inspired experts to create a dye with extremely high color fastness. Scientists are trying to synthesize organic-hybrid inorganic nanocomposite pigments similar to Maya Blue, which are resistant to ultraviolet rays and chemicals.

Every year, humanity throws away thousands of tons of faded clothes and ends up in landfills. Not only that, most of the chemicals in dyes will eventually escape into the sea, polluting the environment. Making fade-resistant dyes from eco-friendly ingredients could be the solution to this problem

Copal resin and palygorskite clay were originally used by the Mayans to treat a variety of ailments, so are especially safe for the environment. When we discover how the Maya people create their own blue color, the amount of waste is reduced, the marine environment also becomes cleaner.