Saturday, February 20, 2016


Macaws, Square Tower Canyon,
Hovenweep Nat. Mon., San Juan
county, UT. Photograph:
Peter Faris, 28 May 1988.

A fascinating subject to study in rock art of the American Southwest, an arid region with much desert, is a picture of a parrot or macaw. But we know that macaws were imported into the American Southwest from their Mesoamerican home during the Ancestral Puebloan periods. On December 15, 2010, I posted a column entitled BIRDS IN ROCK ART - MACAWS, about a group of petroglyphs in Hovenweep National Monument, Utah.

Macaw, West Mesa, Albuquerque,
New Mexico. Photograph: Paul
and Joy Foster.

On March 20, 2011, I posted another column entitled BIRDS IN ROCK ART -PARROTS, about images found in Petroglyph National Monument in West Mesa, Albuquerque, New Mexico. These are birds we think of as jungle creatures from a wetter and more verdant area, one thousand miles away from where the petroglyphs are found.

Two macaws, West Mesa, Albuquerque,
New Mexico. Photograph: Paul
and Joy Foster.

Stephen Lekson (2015) discussed the presence of macaws in this area in terms of logistics (importing/breeding/trading). He relegated to them a function of display and ceremony, almost conspicuous consumption, among upper class rulers at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, in the twelfth century, and Aztec, New Mexico, in the thirteenth century.

Scarlet macaw. Archaeology,
Vol. 68, No. 5, September/October
                           2015 p. 16.
"Chaco was a conspicuous eleventh century consumer of macaws. Paquime was a fourteenth-century producer. Aztec . . . well, Aztec had three macaws - two actual macaws (Lori Pendelton, personal communication, 1997) and one macaw feather (Morris 1919:64). Aztec Ruins and its region have not produced many foreign curios.
But, of course, Aztec West is only one of the half dozen large buildings at Aztec. What a different picture we would have of Chaco had only Chetro Ketl and not Pueblo Bonito been excavated! With the current data, however, it appears that long-range exchange - spectacularly evident at Chaco in the twelfth century and Paquime in the fourteenth century - was greatly reduced at Aztec during the thirteenth century." (Lekson 2015:91)

"Macaws were important to Chaco; thirty-four were found at the canyon, and a few were found at Aztec. Paquime had hundreds and bred the birds, probably supplying feathers - needed for developing kachina ceremonialism - to all the Pueblos (Hargrave 1970). "The people wished to go south, and raise parrots," according to the Acoma and Zuni stories; and that's exactly what they did." (Lekson 2015:147)

Now, according to an article in Archaeology magazine (Vol. 68, No. 5, September/October 2015, p.16) by Eric A. Powell, we have a hard date for the presence of those birds in the area. 

Macaw skull, Chaco Canyon, New
Mexico. Archaeology, Vol. 68, No. 5,
September/October 2015, p. 16.

"In the prehistoric American Southwest, trade with distant Mesoamerica was a source of power and prestige that could make or break a ruler. Within the massive multistory buildings at New Mexico's Chaco Canyon, for instance, archaeologists have discovered exotic goods from Mexico, such as cacao and the remains of 33 scarlet macaws, whose natural habitat is 1,000 miles away on the Gulf of Mexico. Scholars had assumed that long-distance trade became important only during the period when Chaco's power was greatest, from A.D. 1040 to 1110. But now a team has dated the macaw bones and found that some were imported as early as A. D. 900. "I was very much surprised," says American Museum of Natural History archaeologist Adam Watson, who helped organize the dating. "I, along with everyone else, assumed the trade networks with Mexico didn't become important until Chaco expanded. Now we have evidence that control over trade and political power were being consolidated long before then." (Powell 2015:16)

It turns out that the presence of macaws/parrots in the American Southwest dates from almost a century earlier than previously assumed. This carries strong implications on the scale of trade between the American Southwest and Mesoamerica, as well as Chacoan societal development. I imagine the impact that a creature like a scarlet macaw would have had on the people of Chacoan society, their presence would seem almost magical. It is this mental and emotional picture that gives these petroglyphs their impact on modern viewers.


Lekson, Stephen H.
2015    The Chaco Meridian: One Thousand Years Of Political And Religious Power In The Ancient Southwest, Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, Maryland.

Powell, Eric A.

2015    Early Parrots in the Southwest, page 16, Archaeology, Vol. 68, No. 5, September/October 2015.

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