Amazonian Mummified Parrots Discovered in the Atacama Desert
Researchers have made the curious discovery of mummified parrots in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile. Between 1000 and 1460 BC, parrots and macaws were transported over 300 miles to one of the driest places on Earth. One of the most remarkable questions that co-author Jośe M. Capriles and his team posed was how they transported these birds without killing them. But also, why were these parrots mummified in this way?
Unlikely Animal Transportation: The Journey to Mummified Parrots
When the parrots were captured and brought to the Atacama, insane terrain and weather posed massive issues. The birds had to travel across the Andes, with some of the peaks reaching over 10,000 feet high. Natives to the Amazon, the birds would not have been used to such cold weather.
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One of the most pressing questions was how did llamas carry them? There were no horses during this time (pre-Inca), and llamas are not usually used as packing animals. Researcher Jośe M. Capriles was left puzzled. “Llamas are not the best pack animals,” wrote the researcher in the science journal PNAS. “The fact that llama caravans brought macaws and parrots across the Andes and across the desert to this oasis is amazing.”
For birds native to humidity and heat, its remarkable that these birds stayed alive, enduring travel over 300 miles (482 km) and through cold temperatures. Their survival goes to show the importance and levels of care that went into making sure these precious birds remained alive.
The discovery of mummified parrots has let researchers down an unexpected path. In the image a live scarlet macaw from the Bolivian Amazonia. (Carlos Capriles Farfán)
Life in the Desert for an Amazonian Parrot
After the harsh trip through the Andes, the birds were kept as pets but still lived a tough life. Wealthier society members brought the birds to produce feathers, and they would regularly be plucked out and used for different high-status ceremonies and burials. “They were kept to produce feathers and their feathers were plucked out as soon as they grew in,” explained Capriles in CNN.
With zooarchaeological analysis, radiocarbon dating, and DNA testing, the researchers determined many factors, including the bird’s diet, their species, and natural habitation in the hope, according to the PSU report, of determining how they arrived in the Atacama in the first place.
Researchers determined that the birds lived with humans based on their diet which showed that humans and the parrots were eating the same foods. “They were eating the same foods that people were eating enriched with the nitrogen from maize fertilized with marine bird manure,” explained Capriles explained to PSU.
The birds' food and diet study gave researchers insight into if the birds were alive or had died before their arrival in the Atacama. The rich marine fertilized soil that maize grew in was the critical factor in the question. So, where they alive upon arrival?
A mummified scarlet macaw parrot recovered from Pica 8 in northern Chile. (Calogero Santoro & José Capriles / Universidad de Tarapacá & Penn State)
Unusual Mummified Parrots and Their Importance
When the birds died, their bodies were mummified in unusual ways, their mouths were left open, and in some birds, their tongues were also sticking out. While some bird mummies had their wings stretched out to demonstrate their “last flight.” "We have absolutely no idea why they were mummified like this,” commented Capriles in relation to the manner in which the birds had been mummified.
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The majority of the mummified parrots were found at Pica 8, an archeology site outside the community - which still exists today. Many birds were found near human burial sites, which helped researchers understand the purpose of the birds and their mummification with the limited number of birds to study, that is around 27 complete or partial birds from five different species.
It’s clear that these mummified parrots lived a rather unhappy life: being taken away from their homes and living as a pet while having their feathers plucked out. But, due to the care and preservation that went into preparing these mummified animals, researchers and scientists can now study and understand more about burial and ritual practices over 900 years later.
The archaeologist had found parrot and macaw feathers at burials before, but when discovering leather boxes containing mummified birds, it was a new chapter in learning about the Atacama. "They had to be transported across huge steppes, cold weather and difficult terrain to the Atacama. And they had to be kept alive," explained Capriles to PSU. With further studies and archaeological excavations at these sites, researchers hope to learn more about the mummified parrots and their journey from the Amazon to the Atacama desert.
Top image: The basis of the study was mummified parrots, such as this blue-fronted amazon recovered from Pica 8 cemetery in the Atacama Desert. Source: Calogero Santoro & José Capriles / Universidad de Tarapacá & Penn State
By Sarah Piraino