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Did South Americans Wear Blue Jeans?
6,000-year-old fabric shows Peruvians were dyeing cloth with indigo long before the Egyptians (CCSS Level: Grade 6, Words: 492)
Sep 19, 2016 History

This very old fabric may be the world's earliest example of the use of indigo-blue, a colour that has become one of the most popular in the world and is used to dye denim jeans. Check out the piece of cloth in the picture. It was woven and dyed 6,000 years ago by people living on the coast of Peru. If you look very closely you can just see faded darker lines in the material.

When the cloth was first found at a temple at Huaca Prieta, a very old ceremonial place in northern Peru, the researchers could not tell if it was dyed at all because it was so dirty. Then in 2011 some pieces of cloth were carefully cleaned and the darker lines showed up. It was not possible to tell how the cloth was dyed just by looking at it, but a chemist at the University College London was able work out that the blue in the fabrics was indigo. The color probably came from a plant that has been used to make blue dye all around the world.

What is so special is that indigo dye is actually quite hard to make. It was thought that the first uses of indigo were in ancient Egypt and China. But this find shows that indigo was used in Peru at least 6,000 years ago, and that makes it the oldest dyed cloth ever found. In fact it is 1,500 years older than Egyptian indigo cloth.

Many squares of cloth were found at the temple and the researchers think the pieces had been used to wrap up things, perhaps to leave at the temple. Then the pieces of cloth were left behind too.

What is so interesting is that indigo dye is quite hard to make. The blue chemical in indigo does not dissolve in water. Instead, the leaves of the indigo plant are fermented, which turns the dye into another chemical that does dissolve in water, but is not blue. Then the clothes are dipped in the water with the indigo molecule. When the clothes are taken out the chemical mixes with oxygen in the air, and that's when it turns blue.

That means people living in Peru over 6,000 years ago knew how to turn plant fibers into thread, then weave that thread into cloth, and also use a difficult dye method to stain the cloth into a beautiful blue colour.

The blue dye first used in South America is one of the most valuable and widely used dyes in the world. Jeans were first made only in 1871 by the now-famous Levi Strauss and Co. They were worn by cowboys and miners, and they were always indigo coloured. By the 1950's jeans had become very popular with young people and even though styles of jeans change, the material used to make them has stayed the same. Indigo is probably the most popular fabric colour in the world.

What was so surprising about ancient Peruvians using indigo dye?
It was very long ago that they used indigo
Indigo doesn't usually grow in South America
Indigo is such a difficult dye to make and use
People in ancient Peru must have worn jeans
Around how old is Egyptian indigo dyed cloth?
1,500 years
4,500 years
6,000 years
It is not known
What is needed to turn the indigo molecule blue?
Indigo is…
old and easy to make
valuable and widely used
found in only a few places
a dye invented by Levi Strauss
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real, in fact



very old



in addition to



to do with religion or power / the system of rules for a formal occasion



the edge of the land where it meets the sea



men who look after cattle or cows



something really popular amongst a group of people



hard, not easy



a solid that becomes part of a liquid



colour added to a fibre or fabric



cloth made by weaving or knitting fibres



grown faint and losing its colour



well known



when a vegetable is changed into alcohol



a person who works in a mine



people who work in a mine



the smallest part of a chemical



been around for the longest time



looking for knowledge



person who searches for knowledge



find an answer




better or greater than usual



worth a lot of money



fabric made by crossing strands of fibre