Mummified parrots reveal 'sophisticated' ancient trade in South American desert

Researchers identified a mummified Blue-Fronted Amazon parrot, recovered from an ancient cemetery in the Atacama Desert.
Researchers identified a mummified Blue-Fronted Amazon parrot, recovered from an ancient cemetery in the Atacama Desert.
Calogero Santoro, Universidad de Tarapacá and José Capriles, Penn State

A recent study of mummified parrots found in a high-altitude desert region in South America suggests to researchers that, as far back as some 900 years ago, people went to arduous lengths to transport the prized birds across vast and complex trade routes.

The remains of more than two dozen scarlet macaws and Amazon parrots were found at five different sites in northern Chile's arid Atacama Desert — far from their home in the Amazon rainforest.

So how did they get there?

A team of researchers, which published their findings this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, think they have the answer: During a period between the years 1100 and 1450, Atacama communities used long caravans of llamas to transport the precious cargo, trekking more than 500 miles on a route from the Amazon rainforest, through the craggy Andes mountain range, to the harsh desert terrain.

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"This trip likely lasted several weeks if not months," José Capriles, a lead author of the study, told NPR. "That required quite a bit of sophisticated knowledge, being able to trap the birds, keep them in captivity and then transport them across these high mountains."

Like rare gems or high-end cars today, the colorful feathers of exotic birds signaled wealth and power in the pre-Columbian Americas. They adorned the headdresses of elites and even carried spiritual significance.

Capriles, an archaeologist and assistant professor of anthropology at Penn State University, said the birds were so valuable to society at the time that they were raised and nurtured for their feathers and, sometimes, mummified.

"In a place with so limited resources and so limited color, these feathers were incredibly important," he said. "It was a cultural, social, ritual phenomenon. These feathers really crosscut these different spheres of value."

Using methods including radioactive carbon dating and ancient DNA analysis to study 27 intact and partial remains, the researchers identified at least six different species.

As evidenced by the unearthed remains, the birds, seen essentially as living feather factories, were often treated poorly.

"We've all seen whole chickens on the supermarket. These just have a few more feathers, if you will," said Capriles.

He and his colleagues also found that the birds were nutritionally deprived. They were fed the same nitrogen-rich food that their captors subsisted on, a maize-based diet that was fertilized with marine bird manure.

Studying these trade routes was also a personal journey for Capriles.

His mother, Eliana Flores Bedregal, who was an ornithologist and co-author of the study, died of cancer before they could finish the work. Capriles hopes that wherever she is, she feels proud of what they achieved.

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