People living in the Atacama desert once traded exotic parrots

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Mummified scarlet macaw found in Pica, Chile

Calogero Santoro, Universidad de Tarapacá, and José Capriles, Penn State

An oasis in Chile’s Atacama desert may have once served as a hub for the trade of live parrots from across the Andes.

An analysis of the remains of whole birds and feathers found at an archaeological site in Pica, Chile, and other sites in the Atacama desert has revealed that llama caravanners transported live birds more than 500 kilometres in some cases. This occurred between AD 1100 and 1450, after the fall of the Tiwanaku, an Andean civilisation that held power for centuries, and before the rise of the Inca.

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“That required a deep knowledge of the ecology of the birds in their home territories, their home ranges and being able to sustain them on these long journeys,” says Jose Capriles at Pennsylvania State University.

Capriles and his team had known that sites in the Atacama contained goods transported from other regions. Caprile’s mother, Eliana Flores Bedregal, an ornithologist with the National Museum of Natural History in La Paz, Boliva, who was also part of the team, quickly identified the species of several Amazon parrots in remains from Atacama sites now found in several museums. She identified species such as the southern mealy Amazon and scarlet macaws as well as their native ranges.

The researchers then analysed the feathers, and in some cases the remains of whole birds, found at the sites, including some buried with caravanners at a cemetery at an oasis in Pica. A study of carbon and nitrogen isotopes in the remains revealed that the birds lived for some time in the Atacama desert. The isotopes revealed that they had been fed on maize that was likely to have been cultivated with the guano of seabirds transported from the coast – food that wouldn’t have existed in their native ranges.

They were probably kept not only as pets that represented an exotic status symbol, but as potential money makers, says Capriles, “kind of like the hen that produces golden eggs”.

Live birds produce feathers that could have been sold – archaeologists know these were used in clothing, headdresses and hats. Some of the well-preserved birds show evidence of frequent plucking.

Capriles says the study provides further evidence that caravan routes were intact during this period of small regional powers, in between larger powers like the Inca and Tiwanaku.

Journal reference: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2020020118

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source: newscientist.com