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How Purple Gets its Name - Color Fun Fact

Here is a fun fact that I discovered while working on a project that involved researching the history of the color purple.

Tyrian purple was the most famous purple dye in the ancient world.  It was made from the sea snail murex found around the Mediterranean. Murex is porphyra (pore-fear-a) in Greek, purpura (purr-purr-a) in Latin and this is where the name Purple comes from. In Central America a dye is made from another type of purpura sea snail. It was found on the coasts of Costa Rica and Nicaragua. In Mexico on the coast of the state of Oaxaca (wuh-háh-ka), 25 Mixtec Indian men, working along 30 miles of remote, rocky coastline in the Mexican Pacific, carry on an ancient tradition of dyeing cotton purple using the ink of the small sea mollusks. They are the last traditional people on Earth who carry on this legendary practice.

In the Mediterranean, Japan and elsewhere, the mollusks had to be killed to obtain the dye. Given that purple-dyed garments where so highly coveted, this inevitably led to the extreme reduction or extinction of these species. Purpura pansa, however, does not need to be killed to extract the dye. If one applies gentle pressure to the foot of the mollusk the ink is released. This milky white liquid is dabbed onto a skein of cotton thread that the dyer carries wrapped around his forearm. The dyer then replaces the shell in a protected crevice where it will reattach and continue with its mollusk business. It is this simple fact, combined with the Mixtec dyers’ deep understanding of the ways of Purpura panza, which have kept this species alive to this day.

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