Calogero Santoro, Tarapacá University and José Capriles, Penn State
A recent study of mummified parrots found in the desert region at high altitude in South America suggests to researchers that humans, about 900 years ago, struggled to transport prized birds by vast and complex trade routes.
The remains of more than two dozen scarlet macaws and Amazon parrots have been found at five different locations in the arid Atacama Desert in northern Chile – far from their home in the Amazon rainforest.
So how did they get there?
A team of researchers, who published their findings in the journal this week Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, think they have the answer: Between 1100 and 1450, Atacama communities used long caravans of llamas to transport precious cargo, crossing more than 500 miles en route from the Amazon rainforest, through the rugged Andes mountain range, to rugged desert terrain.
“This trip probably took weeks, if not months,” José Capriles, lead author of the study, told NPR. “It required quite sophisticated knowledge, because we could capture the birds, keep them in captivity, and then transfer them over these high mountains.”
Like rare gems or high-end cars today, the colorful feathers of exotic birds signaled wealth and power in pre-Columbian America. They adorned the headgear of the elite and even carried spiritual significance.
Capriles, an archaeologist and assistant professor of anthropology at Penn State University, said birds were so valuable to society at the time that they were bred and nurtured for their feathers and, sometimes, mummified.
“In a place with such limited resources and such limited color, these feathers were incredibly important,” he said. “It was a cultural, social, ritual phenomenon. These feathers really intersected these different spheres of value.”
Using methods involving 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 remains discovered, birds, basically seen as live feather factories, were often mistreated.
“We’ve all seen whole chickens in the supermarket. They only have a few more feathers, if you like,” Capriles said.
He and his colleagues also found that the birds were nutritionally deprived. They were fed the same nitrogen-rich food that their kidnappers subsisted on, corn-based food that was fertilized with seabird manure.
Studying these trade routes was also a personal journey for the Capriles.
His mother Eliana Flores Bedregal, who was an ornithologist and co-author of the study, died of cancer before they were able to finish the job. Capriles hopes that wherever she is she feels proud of what they have achieved.