Macaw Skeletons Offer Clues to Pueblo Society main content.

Macaw Skeletons Offer Clues to Pueblo Society

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The skull of a scarlet macaw.
Dating macaw skulls like this one helped researchers learn more about the origin of Pueblo trade practices.  

New work that more precisely dates the skeletal remains of scarlet macaws found in an ancient Pueblo settlement suggests that complex social and political structures may have emerged in the American Southwest at least 150 years earlier than previously thought.

Researchers from the Museum and other institutions have determined that the macaws, whose brilliant red and blue feathers are highly prized in Pueblo culture, were traded thousands of miles north from their native Mesoamerica to Pueblo cities at the site known as Chaco Canyon, starting in the early 10th century.

The findings, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, also suggest that procuring macaws, along with other valued items like chocolate and turquoise, may have influenced the formation of social hierarchy in Pueblo society. The acquisition of these birds would have been a formidable task, requiring the removal of fledglings from the nest soon after their birth and travel of between 1,800 and 2,500 kilometers (about 1,120–1,550 miles) on foot back to Chaco. Researchers think that it’s likely that this trade was controlled by the social and religious elite in Pueblo society.

“Our findings suggest that rather than the acquisition of macaws being a side effect of the rise of Chacoan society, there was a causal relationship,” said Adam Watson, a postdoctoral fellow in the Museum’s Division of Anthropology and lead author on the paper. “The ability to access these trade networks and the ritual power associated with macaws and their feathers may have been important to forming these hierarchies in the first place.”

A brightly colored parrot in flight.
The vividly colored feathers of the scarlet macaw were prized in Pueblo culture. 

 Scarlet macaws (Ara macao) are particularly significant in Pueblo cosmology, where based on directional association by color (red/orange), they tend to designate southern positions. Ritual use of macaw feathers on prayer sticks, costumes, and masks to communicate prayers to gods is well recorded.

First excavated by a Museum-led team in 1896, the largest of the Chaco Canyon great houses was Pueblo Bonito, which had about 650 rooms. The remains of 30 macaws have been found in Pueblo Bonito, including 14 in a single structure: Room 38, which, based on the amount of guano detected on the floor, was likely a sort of aviary.

Previous attempts at dating the macaw skeletons concluded that they were obtained during the Chaco florescence, a period of rapid expansion of Pueblo culture that began around 1040 AD. But these were less than reliable dating techniques, based on associated tree rings and ceramic type frequencies.

Pueblo Bonito, one of the largest structures in the Chaco Canyon site
Pueblo Bonito, one of the largest structures in the Chaco Canyon site. 

Using radiocarbon dating for this latest study, the researchers examined 14 Pueblo Bonito macaw skeletons that are currently housed in the Museum’s collection. That direct dating found that 12 of the 14 sampled macaws predate the Chaco florescence, with about half of them dating to the late 800s and mid-900s.

“We propose that the hierarchical sociopolitical foundation of Chacoan society was established during the initial era of construction of the great houses, and that this foundation was reinforced during the late 9th and 10th centuries by the acquisition of scarlet macaws and other cosmologically powerful agents from Mesoamerica,” said Stephen Plog, a professor of archaeology at the University of Virginia and coauthor on the study.

To learn more, read the press release.