Prehistoric Macaws of The American Southwest


Paquime has been proposed not only as a distribution center in the macaw trade, but as a possible macaw breeding center, with evidence of parts of one macaw eggshell (more eggshells could have been lost due to a lack of preservation). Structures which have been described as “prehistoric macaw pens” have been documented at Paquime. Each pen, which was constructed of adobe mud bricks, consisted of a central perch, and archaeologists have recovered feathers and macaw fesces inside some of the structures. It is believed that these pens were covered with thatched roofs, and birds were fed through the holes located at the bottom of the pens. The compact size and dark cavelike attributes of the structures are believed to have promoted nesting and breeding behavior, as macaws in the wild usually breed in hollowed out trees. 

Paquime pensPaquime “macaw pens”

According to the archaeological evidence, macaws in the southwest did not live long and happy lives. Of the 30 macaw skeletons recovered in the mimbres valley, only one was older than the age of 10-14 months. Even if macaws were not being sacrificed at a young age, it is not believed that many macaws could live their natural lifespan due to a lack of proper nutrients and care (macaws can live well into their 80s). 

Chimney rockFeather holder found at Chimney Rock, CO. Similar items are used in modern pueblos. In the 11th century, they are only recorded at Chaco sites and its dependencies (Lekson, 1999)).

In the wild, macaws eat greens, fruits and seeds found in their native jungles. In the southwest, however, without the convenience of modern day grocery stores, their diets were lacking in essential vitamins and nutrients. According to Linda Morrow, a bird trainer with nineteen years experience raising and training birds, birds who are lacking in a complete diet could develop beak and nail malformities, dull feathers, and generally have a poor appearance. Also according to Morrow, macaws take about a year to really start learning and mimicing human speech. This fact illustrates the significance of macaws to prehistoric people not because of their ability to speak, but solely for the use of their feathers.

Macaw burials tend to be articulated and buried with purpose, often intered under floors, plazas, or in kivas. Several macaw skeletons recovered in the Mimbres valley were found “wearing” turqoise jewelry, and buried alongside human remains. These burial practices and offerings illustrate the reverence prehistoric people had for these animals.

Ethnographic Accounts

Not only does the archaeological evidence account for the presence of macaws in the prehistoric southwest, but ethnographic accounts from modern day Pueblo peoples also supports the importance of macaws to the ancient pueblos. Several Pueblo tribes, including the Hopi, Zuni, and Keres, have “macaw” or “parrot” clans. Typically, the “parrot” is the symbol of fertility and the fruitful south. To the Hopi, the parrot clan is second in line in leadership, and is considered the “mother” of the people (Waters, 1963).

Two very similar accounts appear in the origin stories of the Zuni and Acoma Pueblos. The Acoma story
as recorded by Leslie White (1932) and Frank Stirling (1942) can be summarized as follows:

    "The people left **White House, and decided to travel south, where lay a place called Ako. They  wished to go there and raise parrots/macaws. They followed due south, following directions given to them by their deities. The people carried two bird eggs, one a macaw and the other a crow; they were to choose and open one egg when they reached their destination. One egg was a beautiful blue and the other was a dun-colored plain; no one knew which egg was the macaw egg and which one was the crow. When they reached Acoma (Ako) they divided into two groups by choosing eggs. The people who chose the blue egg which they assumed was the macaw's, knew that they would stay at Acoma. But when the blue egg was broken, out flew crows. The parrot group left toward the south and it is not known how far they went." (Lekson, 1999)

The Zuni account is very similar; however, at the end of the Zuni story, "the people who chose the plain egg followed a macaw "far south to the Land of Everlasting Sunshine," after the people had established their homes in the "Land of Everlasting Sunshine" a few returned as traders, bringing feathers, macaws, and sea shells" (Lekson, 1999).

Today at every Pueblo, macaws symbolize the south and are associated with the sun (Tyler, 1991). Macaws are also specifically associated with modern kachina ceremonialism. An interesting fact regarding kachina iconography first appears in the mimbres valley around 1000 C.E. (approximately the same time macaws start appearing in Mimbres art).  As mentioned previously, feathers were used ceremonially to create prehistoric prayer sticks, a tradition that continues today. Significantly, modern day Pueblo peoples believe in the "sacred cardinal directions." Each of the directions is represented in ceremonies by a different color, of which the scarlet macaw produces three (red, yellow, blue); however, the majority of a scarlet macaw's feathers are red, the color representing the south (the direction of the macaws homeland). 


The modern day Hopi, Zuni, Keres, Jemez and other Pueblo tribes still participate in rituals and customs that utilize macaw feathers. They have oral histories and clans that are represented by the macaw/parrot, a bird that is not native to the deserts where Pueblo tribes have lived for centuries. For Pueblo indians, macaws represent fertility and the fruitful south and are central to their ceremonies. The feathers of the scarlet macaw have especially been revered and sought after for over a thousand years, a fact that is evidenced in the archaeological record from 750 C.E to historical accounts. Not only are the sacred birds painted on petroglyphs, ceramic vessels, and kivas, but their sacrificial remains have been recovered from significant sites of the ancient Anasazi, Hohokam, and Mimbres cultures. Their sacrifices presumably took place in the spring months, perhaps a sacrifice to symbolize an upcoming fertile year in farming and crop production. After 1200 C.E., an attempt at breeding and redistributing the birds shifts south from the Mimbres valley into Paquime, Mexico. Considering macaws were lacking in a healthy diet and proper care outside of their native environment, their is not much evidence they lived long or produced very vibrant feathers. Perhaps this signifies why birds were sacrificied after only a year, as keeping them alive much longer than that may have been difficult.

Today, Pueblo peoples still need macaw feathers for their sacred rituals. Scarlet macaws are now on the endangered species list, however, due to deforestation in Central and South America and a black market demand for macaws as pets. This has made it more difficult for Pueblo people to attain their sacred feathers without paying up to $60 dollars per feather (depending on size and condition). The fact that these people are dependant on feathers and willing to pay the high price for feathers sustains the black market trade.