For more than two millennia, indigenous peoples in Mesoamerica have traded macaws and included their feathers in rituals. The birds held immense symbolic value and represented sun gods in both Maya and Aztec culture.
And for more than a thousand years, these birds were traded north into what is now the southwestern United States in exchange for turquoise. The ancient Pueblo great houses of Chaco Canyon (in what’s now New Mexico) started importing scarlet macaws from farther south around 900 A.D., using the birds as status symbols and markers of political status. (Find out more about Chaco Canyon.)
But who was supplying Chaco Canyon with macaws, and how? To find out, a team led by Richard George, a Ph.D. student at Pennsylvania State University, sequenced the mitochondrial DNA of of scarlet macaw remains recovered in archaeological excavations at Chaco Canyon and at Mimbres, an ancient Pueblo site in New Mexico. If the researchers could trace these birds back to living populations, they reasoned, perhaps they could identify the original sources of this colorful commodity.
Instead, the DNA evidence revealed an unexpected result: the scarlet macaws sent north on trade networks between 900 to 1200 A.D weren’t wild-caught but locally bred, pushing back known macaw breeding in the region by hundreds of years.
The find, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, implies that somewhere in northern Mexico, there’s an undiscovered bird breeding center waiting to be found.
“We get to take a snapshot of what was going on with different aspects of trade, and complexity, and how different groups were interacting,” says George, a lead author of the study.
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