Prehistoric Macaws of The American Southwest

Kimberly Munro 

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THROUGHOUT HISTORY, ANIMALS HAVE BEEN UTILIZED AND DOMESTICATED FOR FOOD, LABOR, AND OCCASIONALLY FOR COMPANIONSHIP. It is a rare thing when animals are utilized for divination, or worshipped in a godly state (some examples would be the famous royal cats of ancient egypt, or sacred cows in India). In the desert southwest of the United States, however, macaws were revered and used as part of religious ceremonies. In the New World, macaws have played an important role in myth and culture for thousands of years. Archaeological and ethnographic evidence of the interaction between humans and these unique birds exists not only in shared environments, like the jungles of the Amazon and Central America, but also in more distant places where the macaws are not native.  In the southwest, egg shells, skeletal remains and macaw imagery on ceramics have been recovered at archaeological sites. This suggests the important role macaws played as exotic trade items and as objects of veneration.

Southwest pueblo macawsParrots are rated among the top 5 species for animal intelligence and cognition; with an uncanny ability to mimic human speech (which is impressive because parrots are lacking in a larynx/voice box). Macaws are one of the 6 genera (and 17 species) of colorful new world parrots, ranging in size and various colors. Macaws are native to the rainforests of South & Central America, and formerly the Caribbean. The majority of species are found in tropical rainforests, though a few species prefer woodland/savannah environments.

The only parrot species historically native to New Mexico and Arizona was the thick-billed parrot, whose skeletal remains have also been found in Anasazi, Hohokam, and Mogollon or Mimbres (a specific subset of the Mogollon culture) period sites.  These prehistoric cultures are the ancient ancestors of modern Pueblo indians. The thick-billed parrot, though native to the region, is not represented archaeologically to the same extent as the military or scarlet macaw. Also, the thick-billed parrot is not nearly as impressive in size and color as the scarlet macaw, whose magnificent tail feathers in some Pueblo ceremonies have been used to represent the sun. The colors the scarlet macaw produces, such as red, blue, and yellow, traditionally represent the colors associated with the sacred cardinal directions of modern day Pueblo peoples (such as the Hopi, Zuni, Keres, & Jemez tribes).

This article will focus on the introduction and presence of macaws in the four corners region of the American Southwest, their remains in the archaeological record, and ethnographic evidence of their connection and importance in modern day rituals and ceremonies to modern day Pueblo peoples. 

When the Spanish first arrived in the southwest in the 16th century, they recorded feather trade and the keeping of macaws among Pueblo peoples (Hodge and Lewis 1907:106; Schroeder 1968:98-99). As evidenced by Lyndon Hargrove (1970), macaw skeletal remains make their appearance in the American Southwest by 1000 AD. Most significant are the remains of the scarlet macaw (Ara macao) whose native habitat only extends from the jungles of South America into lowland Mexico. The presence of scarlet macaws in the desert southwest illustrates the importance of trade in exotica between the cultures of the southwest and Mexico. The earliest macaw feathers that have been recovered in this region date back to 750 A.D.  These feathers indicate the start of a large trade network between the southwestern cultures and Central Mexico.  Turquoise from New Mexico and Arizona have been found in Mexico, while marine shells from the Sea of Cortez, copper bells, and cacao from Central Mexico have been recovered in the southwest.

Petro potteryMacaw petroglyphs from Boca Negra Canyon, NM, and kiva mural painting from Pottery Mound Kiva, NM

Macaw/parrot petroglyphs as well as detailed murals on prehistoric kivas litter the southwest. Kivas are traditional ceremonial centers that Pueblo indians still use today.  Traditionally they were built underground and used for community gatherings. At some point in the feather trade, around A.D 1000, the macaw feathers themselves were not enough, and the actual live birds began being traded.

Archaeologists have debated about whether or not birds were bred among the prehistoric Pueblo peoples, or if adult birds were captured and traded to the southwest from groups in Mexico. Researchers believe the macaw trade took place in two steps; the first leg of the birds’ journey took the macaws from their native habitat in southern Mexico after hatching in the wild in the spring. From there they were transported over 700 miles into the Mimbres valley of New Mexico, (Bullock and Cooper 2001, and McKusick 2001). After their arrival in the Mimbres valley, juvenile macaws were believed to have been raised and cared for until their tail feathers had grown to full length (approximately a year old). At that point the birds would continue to be traded to the northernmost Anasazi and Hohokam territories of Kiet Siel and Wupatki. This second leg of the journey was potentially another 700 miles, depending on the birds' final resting place. Due to their age at death, macaw sacrifices are believed to coincide with the springtime, specifically the spring equinox in March.  After sacrificing the birds, their feathers were plucked for use in pahos (or prayer sticks), and other sacred symbolic objects of the ancient Pueblo peoples. Over 6,000 macaw-themed vessels and over 30 macaw skeletons have been recovered at Mimbres sites dating from 1000-1150 C.E.. Some of these ceramics depict scenes of macaws being transported by handlers in burden baskets.  The ceramics, along with skeletal remains, lead archaeologists to believe the Mimbres valley was the original "middle man" for macaw trade and distribution in the southwest.

Macaw mimbresa-b, Mimbres ceramics depicting scarlet macaws, c-d, Mimbres ceramics depicting juvenile macaws being transported by their handlers in burdern baskets

After 1200 C.E. the macaw trade route changes, with the regional macaw distribution center shifting to Paquime. Paquime was a large site located in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. It has been proposed by archaeologists as a macaw breeding center for the prehistoric people of the southwest after the year 1250 C.E.. Over 500 macaw skeletal remains have been recovered as well as evidence of at least one egg having hatched. Also present at Paquime are structures that are believed to have been macaw breeding pens. Occupation at Paquime dates from 1250 to 1450 C.E.

Scarlet macaw extentMacaw's native habitat in red, blue dot is the location of Paquime

Of the 500 macaw skeletons recorded at Paquime, only 96 were of the local military macaw variety. The rest were scarlet macaws. According to Zuni and Acoma Pueblo oral histories, Paquime was a destination for many people after the abandonment of Chaco Canyon in northern New Mexico. Paquime shares many characteristics with Anasazi/Chaco period architecture. Chaco Canyon, which was a large Anasazi regional center circa 1000 C.E., was abandoned after periods of drought starting after 1150 C.E. Paquime shares large open central plazas, T-shaped doorways, structural support disks, sleeping platforms, and underground ceremonial chambers resembling the pueblo style kivas found at Chaco Anasazi period sites.

Paquime also shares many architectural and symbolic similarities with many Mesoamerican cultures, including platform mounds, possible “ball court” structures, a serpent and bird mound, and images associated with Quetzalcoatl and other Mesoamerican deities.  Archaeologists believe that after the abandonments of the Chaco Canyon region, the Mogollon people of the Mimbres valley also moved south and were absorbed by or possibly influenced the development of the Chihuahua culture. The earliest pottery cultures of the NW Chihuahua region were derived from the Mogollon area (Gladwin, 1936).