An Inca qero (photo by Sean Pathasema/Birmingham Museum of Art, via Wikimedia Commons)

In the continuing motif of colonizing nations taking credit for Indigenous discoveries, titanium dioxide — a chemical compound that produces a commonly used bright white pigment— has long been attributed to its development in 1908 at a lab in Niagara Falls, New York. But in 2018, researchers discovered evidence of the pigment, which has become omnipresent in products and goods of all kinds, in Andean qeros, meaning that the pigment was developed for use in this Inca ceremonial wooden cup some 400 years ago.

“The temporal horizon for the use of this pigment appears to be ca. 1532–1570, correlating with what we refer to here as the Transitional Inka/Early Colonial period, although production of polychromed qeros may have begun before this time and certainly continued well into the eighteenth century or later,” write co-authors Ellen Howe, Emily Kaplan, Richard Newman, James H. Frantz, Ellen Pearlstein, Judith Levinson, and Odile Madden, in their article for Heritage Science.

Though qeros were produced by the Inca for a millenia, they did not begin to feature chromatic elements until roughly 1530 — but that still places the discovery of titanium white centuries ahead of its formal introduction to the Western world. As X-ray and spectroscopy are generating all kinds of breakthroughs in the study of ancient technologies, anthropologists continue to expand their understanding of the true origins and extent of breakthroughs once firmly Euro-centric in their attribution.

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit — including at the Detroit Institute of Arts....

One reply on “The Little-known Indigenous History of “Titanium White””

  1. Thanks, fascinating discovery! However, this is not about a colonizing culture taking credit for an indigenous discovery, but simply becoming aware of — and publishing! — that discovery, after having independently discovering how to mass produce the thing through an entirely different route. The article makes it sound as if europeans knew about the Inca use, and suppressed that knowledge to advance their claim of discovery. The Inca used a mineral deposit in which the naturally occurring TiO2 happens to be already white and suitable for use as a pigment. The story in Europe was different. See a useful summary in the wiki on Titanium Dioxide. That said, indigenous technology should always be celebrated — humans everywhere have proven to be master technologists.

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