In 1908, at a lab in Niagara Falls, New York, a metallurgist named Auguste Rossi invented a brilliant white pigment that would become almost ubiquitous in human-made stuff and is found today in everything from paint to plastic to pills. The chemical, titanium dioxide, became what color researcher Matthijs de Keijzer calls the “most significant contribution” to an explosion in 20th-century pigment technology, in what some historians refer to as a chromatic revolution, a new look for the world. But archaeologists say that Rossi didn’t get there first.
In 2018, researchers in the United States discovered titanium white in 400-plus-year-old ceremonial wooden drinking cups made by the Inca and residing today in various museums. Carved with elaborate geometrical designs, the cups, called qeros, traditionally were not colored. But around the time of the Spanish conquest of Peru in 1530, the Inca started mixing pigments, including titanium white, into resin and decorating qeros with the bright goo.
In the Americas, white pigments were usually calcium carbonates—lime or chalk. In Europe, they were lead white. How did the Inca jump 400 years into the future?