Colombian artist Susana Mejía is fascinated by colour. Through her long-term research project 'Color Amazonia', she aims to preserve local knowledge about natural pigments from the Amazon. She collaborated with anthropologists, botanists, filmmakers and artists to document the plants used by indigenous Huitoto and Tikuna communities to investigate 11 different dye plants and their recipes from the Amazon region. Together, they aim to prevent traditional knowledge about natural fibres dyeing from disappearing.
Since its inception, Colour Amazonia has committed to the preservation of the environment and vindication of indigenous knowledge, while delving into the ancient relationship between humans and nature through ethnobotanical and transdisciplinary research. It fosters a collective reflection on the urgency of preserving the world's most important if not last ecological reserve, both, biologically and culturally speaking. So, it stands for a shift of paradigm, at all levels, to embrace the idea of sustainability.
Scientific name: Bactris gasipaes
Common names: Chontaduro, chocarrás, chonta palmito, pupuña.
Part of the plant used for pigment: Leaf
Palm with a straight, cylindrical and spiny stem, 10 to 25 cm in diameter, which when fully grown reaches up to twenty meters in height. Its leaves, which number between 9 and 20, are luxuriant and thorny, and form a group at the top of the plant, measuring up to 50 cm in width and 4 m in length. It has small, yellowish-white flowers, almost always enclosed in a large, spiny sheath. It produces clusters of up to 140 oval-shaped fruits, each up to 6 cm in diameter. The exocarp is hard, smooth or sometimes striated, and varies in colour from yellow to deep red when ripe. It contains a single conical seed embedded in its juicy and succulent mesocarp.
Geographic Distribution and Natural History
Native to the tropical forests of Central and South America, its range extends from Nicaragua and Costa Rica—including some Caribbean islands—to Brazil and Bolivia; and from the Pacific coast of Ecuador to the mouth of the Amazon and the Guianas. It grows along river beds and in clearings mainly in primary forest, in the warm climate of the mountain lowlands and in non-flooding humid areas, up to 1,300 meters above sea level. With 79 species, Bactris is the second-most numerous genus in the Neotropics. Within its genus, the palm Bactris gasipaes is the most important to be domesticated. It is known to have been used for more than 2,000 years and its cultivation spread throughout tropical America long before the arrival of the Spanish. In recent decades, it has been introduced to other countries such as Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, and the Hawaiian Islands. It was first collected at the beginning of the 19th century close to Ibagué, Colombia by Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland, who called it “peach palm.” Later, at their request, it was botanically described in 1828 as Bactris gasipaes by the German botanist Carl Sigismund Kunth, responsible for the classification of the entire botanical collection left by the expedition of the two naturalists to America. The type specimen of this species was donated in 1833 by Bonpland to the Museum of Natural History in Paris, where it is preserved to this day. In Latin America, it is known by about fifty different names. In Colombia it is called chontaduro; in Costa Rica, pejibaye; pigibaio in Panama; as well as pijuayo in Peru and pupunha in Brazil. It is also known in other places as chontaruru, pipire, pixbae, pijibay, cachipay, pifá, chima or tembe.
In many chronicles of the Indies, there are references to its use across much of the territory of New Granada (Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador), Central America and Brazil. In Colombia, these references allow it to be located, since the Conquest, on the Pacific coast, the basins of the Atrato, Cauca and Magdalena rivers, the Orinoco and the Amazon. They set out in great detail its usefulness and importance, both for the Amerindians and for the first European explorers. It is probable that the black palm sticks and clubs that Christopher Columbus saw being used by the indigenous people of Cariay in Costa Rica during his fourth voyage, in 1502, were made from the wood of the species Bactris gasipaes. However, the first historical references to the plant date from at least the first half of the 16th century. In their references to the province of Popayán, between 1540 and 1550, Pedro Cieza de León and Jorge Robledo name the palm, although they use the word pijibay or another of its variants from Central American indigenous languages; this suggests that it was in this region that the Spaniards learned about its uses for the first time. In the last quarter of the 16th century, the form chonta-ruru, whose semantic relationship is described by the chronicler Juan de Velasco as “the fruit of any palm,” began to replace the other regional names. In 1583, Francisco Guillén Chaparro used the name chotarudo, which is much closer to the term currently used in Colombia, geographically linking the plant to northwestern South America. The first written mention of the Quechua word chontaduro was by the Spanish soldier and naturalist Bernardo de Vargas Machuca in 1599, and from then on this name became widespread. It is likely that it was spread in Southern Colombia by indigenous Yanaconas of Quechua origin, from Northern Ecuador. It has been said that a representation of the chontaduro palm appeared on the shield of Manco Cápac, the mythical founder of the Inca empire. Considered the most important palm of those domesticated and cultivated by primitive American peoples, due to its great number of uses the chontaduro is a central pillar of the material and spiritual culture of the Amazonian indigenous peoples. Since pre-Hispanic times, in eastern Ecuador, the indigenous Shuar, also known as Jívaros, have used it in their most important religious celebrations. In their mythology, it is known as uwi, the personification of the abundance of the jungle and the fecundity of the cosmos. When the fruits ripen, during the harvest they hold rituals for the fertility of animals and plants and the vitality of mankind. The chonta spear is their traditional weapon, used both for war and hunting. According to records from the mid-18th century, the indigenous people of the upper Caquetá river basin made blowpipes with the wood of the chonta palm, and in Pasto and Quito “macona de chonta” looms were used to weave ruanas and capisayos. In the 19th century, the Tayrona Indians of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta manufactured blowguns from macana wood to hunt birds, using an ancient technique. At the beginning of the 20th century, the Witoto in the Amazon were still building their blowguns of the same material. The marimba is a musical instrument of African origin, typical of the Pacific Coast in Ecuador and Colombia. It is composed of multiple pieces that are made with palm wood, and the first mentions of its use in America date back to the 18th century. Despite European colonisation, the ancestral use of chontaduro still persists in the Amazon and other tropical areas of Central and South America by indigenous groups from Colombia, Ecuador, Brazil, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. In the Colombian Pacific, the Jaibaná, healers and Emberá shamans, use the wood of the stem of the chontaduro to carve their ceremonial batons, an essential element in their rituals and healing ceremonies. In Ecuador, the Tsáchila or Colorado people prepare a stew with roots to ritually bathe and purify the young apprentices of the shaman. Along with corn and cassava, chontaduro has played an essential role in indigenous diets across much of Latin America.
The highly nutritious pulp is consumed raw, or after cooking, or in preparations such as chicha, or preserved in the form of dough or flour. An oil is extracted from the seed that is used in cooking. In addition, from the bud of its still-young stem, the edible palm heart is extracted. When the palm is adult, its well-formed stems provide wood for the construction of huts and the manufacture of weapons and tools. Some Amazonian groups, such as the Shawi in Peru or the Tikuna in Colombia, extract a green pigment from the young leaves. The latter use it to paint on yanchama, a fabric of important symbolic value made from Poulsenia armata plant fibres, on which they use plant pigments to make their art. In the Amazon basin, it is used by the Andoque, Barasana, Carijona, Cofán, Cubeo, Desana, Emberá, Macuna, Miraña, Muinane, Nukak, Ocaina, Piapoco, Piratapuyo, Pisamira, Puinave, Secoya, Tukano, Tunebo, Witoto, Yagua and Yurutí ethnic groups, among others.
Highly appreciated to this day, especially for its important nutritional properties, the fruit has been promoted as a “vegetable egg,” since it is rich in essential amino acids, proteins, omega 3 and omega 6 polyunsaturated fatty acids, fibre, carbohydrates, vitamins A, B and C, and minerals like iron, magnesium, phosphorus, and calcium. It is usually eaten fresh or after thirty to sixty minutes of cooking in salted water. Today it is also processed together with flour for bread and pastry products, in jams and jellies, and many other food products. It has been used medicinally to treat body aches, headaches, psoriasis, inflammations, and tuberculosis. It is useful against anemia, digestive disorders, lack of appetite or vitality and memory problems. It helps reduce cholesterol levels and reduces the risk of developing cardiovascular diseases. It benefits intestinal health due to its high content of dietary fibre and helps maintain body weight and prevents diseases such as colon cancer and diabetes. It improves vision because it is a natural source of carotenoids, such as beta-carotene and lycopene, which also help with skin care thanks to their antioxidant properties. The seeds possess antioxidant, nutritional, moisturising and emollient properties and are useful in anti-aging dermatological formulations. The roots of the palm may be cooked and the extract used to treat colds, uterine infections, hepatitis, malaria, stomach pain, diarrhoea and urinary infections.
The chontaduro provides a green pigment when its leaflets are macerated. This is a very popular plant that can be found easily. Its pigment sets very well on paper, but not on fique (natural fibre); and on cotton, it generates a low-intensity, pale green. It does not require exposure to fire to bind to the supports used.
Information submitted by the maker and edited by the Future Materials Bank.