As long as 900 years ago, people in South America transported parrots and scarlet macaws across the Andes and into northern Chile, where the colorful birds were eventually mummified.
As Jack Guy reports for CNN, researchers recently analyzed avian remains found at sites in Chile’s Atacama Desert—the driest in the world. The exotic birds are native to the much more humid climate of the Amazon, about 300 miles away. The team’s findings are newly published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Lead author José M. Capriles, an anthropologist at Penn State University, tells CNN that the time period the mummified birds date to, between 1100 and 1450 A.D., saw an uptick in commerce in the region. Llama caravans moved an array of goods along the Andes Mountains.
“The fact that live birds made their way across the more-than-10,000-foot-high Andes is amazing,” says Capriles in a statement. “They had to be transported across huge steppes, cold weather and difficult terrain to the Atacama. And they had to be kept alive.”
Capriles and his colleagues conducted a survey of bird remains, including mummies and feathers, housed at several museums in the area, reports Brooks Hays for UPI. They found that the birds ate the same diet as the farmers who acquired them, showing that the animals lived in their new homes for a significant amount of time. The mummified birds were typically found in human burials, many of them at a cemetery in Pica, an oasis community that served as a trade hub.
Most of the birds were mummified between the fall of the Tiwanaku Empire, which held power in the area for centuries, and the rise of the Inca, notes Joshua Rapp Learn for New Scientist. Building on earlier research, the new study shows that caravan routes remained intact even as the region split politically among smaller local powers.
The transportation of birds across such harsh terrain reflects the skills of the people who managed the caravans.
“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,” Capriles tells New Scientist.
Many of the birds were mummified with their mouths wide open and tongues sticking out. Others had their wings spread as though flying.
“We have absolutely no idea why they were mummified like this,” says Capriles in the statement. “They seem to be eviscerated through their cloaca (a common excretory and reproductive opening), which helped to preserve them. Many times, they were wrapped in textiles or bags.”
The anthropologist adds that people may have kept the birds as exotic pets whose feathers were prized for their use in headdresses and hats.
“Some of these birds did not live a happy life,” Capriles says. “They were kept to produce feathers and their feathers were plucked out as soon as they grew in.”