Wednesday, December 15, 2010


Among the birds pictured in rock art of the American southwest are the figures of some birds that are not native to North America but which had been imported from Meso-America. These alien visitors are parrots and macaws. Macaws and parrots, along with copper bells, and sea shells were imported from the jungles of southern Mexico, up to 1,000 kilometers (more than 600 miles) to the south.
Macaws and parrots were important birds in prehistoric Mimbres-area communities by A.D. 1000. Scarlet macaws apparently were imported into the area from the tropical lowlands in Mexico. Macaws in particular evidently were of special, perhaps ceremonial, importance as indicated by consistent age at death, probably reflecting sacrifice in the spring, and by deliberate burial, often in special rooms in the community. Remains of macaws and parrots were also found in abundance at Chaco Canyon and other sites proving that not just the feathers, but the birds themselves had been traded for.

There were basically two species of Macaw that were prehistorically imported into the American southwest from Mesoamerica. These are the military macaw (Ara militaris), a green feathered species, and the scarlet macaw (aro macao). The military macaw is from relatively dry areas and its range reached to within 20-30 miles of the Arizona/Mexico border. The scarlet macaw occupied wetter habitation so its natural range ends considerably farther south (Hutchins 36-37). Scarlet macaws are relatively easily tamed and so would have been easier to transport (Hutchins p.40).

Three macaws, Hovenweep National Monument,
Utah/Colorado. Photo: Peter Faris.

My petroglyph of macaws is located at Hovenweep. There are three of the birds arrayed horizontally across the center of the picture with their heads with curved beaks facing to the right and their tails pointing out to the left. The bird on the right has a squared fret design sticking up from its tail, the center bird seems to be standing on a Mesa Verde style t-shaped doorway, and a smaller, fainter one is on the left side past the spiral.

Close-up of three macaws, Hovenweep National
Monument, Utah/Colorado. Photo: Peter Faris.

Native American societies prized feathers for decorative purposes as well as for their perceived symbolic and spiritual meanings. For any people who highly prized feathers the feathers of Mexican macaws would have been valued highly indeed for the beauty of their bright colors. Pueblo peoples associated macaws with the rainbow because of their bright colors and, as birds, they belonged in the sky. The accompanying complex of associations included clouds, the sun, and rain, and maize (which needed rain to grow). The multicolored plumage of macaws also suggested the many colors of kernels found on Indian maize. Thus it is not surprising that macaw and parrot feathers were important for the creation of “Corn Mother” fetishes. Pueblo peoples create “Corn Mother” fetishes, based on a perfect head of corn bundled within a cluster of feathers. Called the mi’li at Zuni, the base was hollowed out and a heart of flint was placed within. Called a tiponi at Hopi, instead of flint it held seeds. Among the feathers affixed to the corn mother, the feathers of the macaw were highly prized. They would have also been prized for the creation of Pahos the so-called "prayer sticks".

Parrot effigy pot, Tonto polychrome, ca. 1300-1400,
p.189, Brasser, Native American Clothing, 2009

The Tonto polychrome macaw effigy pot illustrated was created by the Hohokam people of southern Arizona.

It is hardly surprising then to find images of parrots and/or macaws in the rock art of the region. While we cannot know if the motive for the creation of their images was to invoke spiritual influences, a prayer for rain, or just to brag about wealth, it is interesting to reflect that the images of parrots and macaws are placed on the rocks in a region where they never naturally lived. These images remain as a symbol of the complexities of the culture of these people who benefited from these long distance trade networks.


Hutchins, Megan
2008   Survey of the Macaw, p. 36-44, in Mesoamerican Influences in the Southwest, Kachinas, Macaws, and Feathered Serpents, edited by Glenna Nielsen-Grimm, Museum of Peoples and Cultures, Popular Series #4, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT.

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