Updated: Jun 28, 2021
Northern Chile’s Atacama Desert is the most arid landscape on earth. So why have archaeologists found mummified tropical parrots and macaws from burials in five cemeteries at sites like Pica 8 located in oasis communities?
Pica 8 was an important trading center, which was visited by llama caravans from near and far. Tropical bird feathers were symbols of spiritual status, prestige, and wealth – treasured by societies throughout South America. The dry conditions in Atacama sites preserved not only feathers, but also entire mummified birds like the scarlet macaw.
These birds were transported from the highlands when alive. Most of the bird remains in the latest study date to between AD 1000 and 1460, a period that saw the collapse of the Tiwanaku state (near Lake Titicaca), which ended before the Inca conquest. Scarlet macaws and at least five other parrot species traveled over 300 miles from their eastern Amazon homeland. They ate the same maize diet as the farmers who owned them and were plucked mercilessly for their growing feathers.
Some of the parrots were mummified with their mouths open and tongues sticking out. Others had their wings extended as if in flight. Why, we know not. Tropical birds may not have survived long, but they were obviously a prestigious commodity worth the laborious task of transportation.