Getting a good solid dye is a pain in the ass, technologically. Most natural dyes fade pretty fast, on the archaeological scale, and when you paint your giant statue, you want to know that the sparkling cornflower blue of his pants will stay that way for the generations immemorial your civilization is totally going to have. Woad and indigo, which were great for textiles, were not going to work on walls. Artificial dyes, however, require some fairly intense engineering problems. Blue in particular has posed issues of toxicity and durability throughout the years. Egyptian blue and Han blue, which are both stable, chemical, cupric, and probably related, got used in their separate world-spanning empires for a couple thousand years but vanished into the mist of the ages by about 300 CE. That left Eurasia with azurite and similar ineffective “if we smear enough blue rock on this, that will turn it blue forever, right?” techniques.
Meanwhile In America, the Maya were facepalming really hard, because they had solved this technological problem actually something like four hundred years before our period in between games of protolacrosse. See, the thing you do to make Maya blue is you take indigo and you combine it with white clay, called palygorskite, and it dyes the clay, and then you melt the clay and have a pigment. This is a more complicated process than it sounds, since you need to create chemical bonds between the indigo and the clay, which means using incredibly high temperatures. The Maya also probably used a binding agent called copal, which is a tree sap incense, thereby making the whole process much more aromatic and possibly sanctified. Very well played, The Maya.
There are scattered uses of Maya blue during the pre-Classical period, but it really kicks off during the Classical period, when there were mines opened in the Yucatán to get enough palygorskite to decorate every elaborately beautiful urban center and temple site. It is hands-down the best blue dye to survive from the archaeological world. This process, of course, was lost too.
Here’s a fun fact: the guy who invented Prussian blue, which for some reason is referred to as the first synthetic dye even though that title is off by something like five thousand years, is named Diesbach. Diesbach appears to be a mysterious incompetent who didn’t understand dye-making and didn’t leave a first name but who did collaborate with a dude who tried to actually, in real life, buy Castle Frankenstein in order to make an elixir of life in it. I’m not saying that the most logical conclusion is that Diesbach was a time-traveler who destroyed all evidence of other blue-making processes in order to get credit for his shitty one. I’m just strongly implying it.
I’m coming to understand that central America is just a bad-ass place for dyes
FOR INSTANCE (I apologize in advance for the Euro-centric perspective of the shit I’m about to poorly recall but that’s the way the books I’ve read were contextualized)
Brazil was actually named by some dicks after brazilwood, which was a known and expensive source of red dye in the “Old World” (they grew in Africa and a different tree w/ similar properties grew in Asia) so people got like florins or pieces of eight (or whatever that shit they used that wasn’t diamond encrusted dollars signs) in their eyes to see it in the New.
But the star dye of the land is Cochineal red, a dye that is just crazy good at being red, and being good at red is hard. In Eurasia red was historically one of the most expensive, tightly regulated and fade-happy dyestuffs, it was the color of the rich and noble in locations both in the east and the west of the continent. Hell, “scarlet” used to refer to a luxurious, expensive dye that didn’t necessarily have to be red hued, but there’s a reason why it became synonymous with red.
Yet old world reds didn’t have anything on Cochineal. It comes from carefully cultivated and fragile species of parasitic bug that only grow on a specific cactus in Central America. The Aztec had the production of that shit down to an art; it was symbolically important, more economically accessible compared to red in Europe, bright, fade resistant and everywhere.
Then the conquistadors fucked it up for some time with their violence and unsustainable land distribution practices like they did with OH JUST ABOUT EVERYTHING
[anyway for more on Cochineal you should read “A Perfect Red”, the first three chapters of which I pretty much just summarized BUT GET THIS GUYS this is so wild IT IS MORE THAN THREE CHAPTERS LONG. it’s pretty great. As for blue, I don’t know but there’s a song on the subject by Leanne Rimes you might be interested in]