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Introduction - The Indigo People - Like Mother, Like Child? - Blue Bloods - Blue Baby Syndrome - Living the Blues - The Precious Poison - A Brief History of Silver Poisoning - The Science of Argyria - Notes - Sources
The Indigo People
Indigo has been a stock trade item for centuries, being the most concentrated and only effective blue dye available until the recent development of artificial dyes. Due to its value and the difficulty of extraction from its various plant and animal sources, the production of indigo has traditionally been a process run by groups of people who live together and support themselves by this important process.
It is these groups that have been — in legend at least — presented as having blue skin, the color being derived from their almost constant contact both with the production of indigo dye, as well as the wearing of clothes colored with it. In fact, the legends also claim that these people are so impregnated with this dye that their babies are born with blue skin, due to the dye being transferred from the mother to the child.
I have run across this legend twice, in reference to two different groups. The first, and earliest, reference is in “Ripley’s New Believe It or Not!” [1950 Simon & Schuster], a collection of unusual facts gathered by the staff of the Believe It or Not cartoons and published shortly after Robert Ripley’s [1890-1949] death. In this book is a brief mention (just a few paragraphs) of the “Blue Arabs,” said to be the Garui tribe living in Saba, in the Arabian kingdom of Yemen. According to the book, Saba was a center for the production of indigo dye and the Garui dyed their clothes, putting them on before the dye had dried. They were also said to smear their skin directly with indigo dye, as a protection against sickness... and that they had been doing this for hundreds of years, thus leading to a permanent blue hue to their hair and skin, one which transferred itself to their children when they were born.
No modern town called Saba exists in Yemen, but one did thousands of years ago; now more commonly called Sheba, this kingdom was an oasis culture due to a massive dam that created fertile lands. It was famed for the export of many things, including blue cloth which might indicate that indigo dyes were produced there. Unfortunately for the legend, I’ve been unable to find even a single mention of the Garui, historically or otherwise: so, in short, they likely never existed.
While researching the possible existence of the Garui of Yemen, however, I did run across a mention of another group of people that have been accused of having indigo blue skin and pre-dyed babies: the Tuareg of the Sahara Desert, in Africa. This claim was asserted by a respondent identified only as “S. Thompson” to a short article about blue-skinned people on the Straight Dope website, insisting that they had read the above facts about the Tuareg somewhere... but they don’t mention where.
The Tuareg are a Muslim nomadic group that inhabits the Sahara Desert of Africa. They have existed as a group for at least 2000 years, and once operated trade routes across the Sahara using camels as their main means of transportation. Since the late nineteenth century, the Tuareg has been involved in a number of conflicts relating to the perceived invasion of the Sahara by foreign groups that don’t recognize the Tuareg as the controllers or owners of the lands they have inhabited for centuries. Traditionally, Tuareg men wear veils at all times; this may have started as a simple and practical protection against blowing desert sands. Due to this fact, the Tuareg have also been called “the people of the veil.” Tuareg women don’t wear veils, distinguishing them from women in other Muslim societies who typically do.
Any modern claim of the Tuareg having fully blue skin is untrue; but it is based on some known facts. Books published between 1890 and 1930 documented that one group among the Tuareg, usually identified as the “Northern Tuareg,” have used an indigo powder to color clothing, instead of the more common fluid variety of the dye. Most often, this indigo has been used to color the veils of the wealthier men of the group. An indigo powder is used because it does not require moisture to color the clothing, a useful bonus in a desert society; but it is not as permanent as the fluid forms of the dye, and can come off of the clothes onto skin easily. The temporary skin stains caused by it were a form of prestige, as they proved the wealth of the bearer. In addition, some of the Tuareg men purposely rubbed the indigo powder onto their faces, hands, and arms as both a sunblock and as a preventative for itches and irritations of the skin.
This powder color was in no way permanent, and could be easily washed off with water; but due to the scarcity of water, and the dry weather of the desert preventing sweat buildup (and therefore preventing body odor), the Tuareg were in the habit of not washing often. This, of course, prolonged the time the blue powder would stay on their skin. Modernly, I have no direct evidence that any Tuareg men are having problems with the dye in their clothing or that any are purposely coloring themselves... instead, there are a dozen books that state that such things have happened, relying, no doubt, on what has been written previously.
So only one group of the Tuareg had blue skin; and it was only the wealthier men, and only part of their bodies, and in no way permanent. Tuareg women sometimes used indigo as a makeup for lips, or on their hands, but they far more often used (and still use) ochre to paint their faces yellow. So the Tuareg are not blue; but this is only half of the legend.
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