Earth Notes: Chaco Canyon’s Ancient, Exotic Birds

Jan 6, 2016

For millennia, people have coveted rare goods they could get only through trade with others. The Ancestral Puebloans of the Colorado Plateau were no exception. They traveled great distances to exchange items like local turquoise, hides, and pottery for exotic shells, copper bells, and cacao.


They also wanted macaws, beautiful parrot-like birds from the tropics. Both live macaws, and their gleaming red, yellow and blue feathers, were status symbols with ceremonial importance.

But the birds’ native habitat is more than a thousand miles south in Mexico. Puebloan traders may have trekked down to get them, possibly carrying them in baskets on their backs. Or it may have been southern neighbors who carried the birds north.

Abundant macaw remains have been found in Wupatki National Monument and on the Mogollon Rim in Arizona, and at Chaco Canyon in northern New Mexico. And now new information about macaw remains from Chaco is challenging old assumptions.

Researchers recently worked out carbon-14 dates on scarlet macaw skeletons, most from the great house of Pueblo Bonito. They found that macaws were present at least a century before archaeologists thought—some as early as A.D. 900 to 975. The results from this direct dating method are considered more accurate than previous, relative dates.

Chaco was a central ceremonial place in the early Puebloan world, with a complex society and upper-crust elites. To archaeologists, the dates suggest that the elites, who controlled access to the highly prized macaws, were in power earlier than had previously been thought.