When studying ancient civilizations, burial sites for high-status individuals are a great place to start if you want to get an idea of what was considered valuable when they were alive. From alcohol to jewelry and even pets, all sorts of things have been wedged in alongside a once-wealthy corpse. For the Ancient Egyptians, mummified cats, dogs, and ibises were among the mummified animals – but elsewhere on the planet, it seems parrots were a favored burial-buddy.
A new study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences carried out a first-of-its-kind systematic review of the social networks that moved heaven and Earth to get parrots and macaws across the Andes – alive – ending up in the Atacama Desert, northern Chile, between 1100 and 1450 CE. These birds were not native to the region, yet their mummified remains have been discovered in ancient burial sites, revealing the impressive distances ancient civilizations were willing to trade across in pursuit of feathery friends.
“Tropical feathers are frequently found whenever conditions allow for their preservation as these were very important symbols of wealth," said José M. Capriles, assistant professor of anthropology, Penn State, in an email to IFLScience. "Also, a Chilean amateur archaeologist had sent the American Museum of Natural History in New York a complete tomb and offerings including a mummified Amazon parrot from the same site in the early 1900s."
The Atacama Desert is the driest in the world, yet the archaeological record shows evidence of feathers in burial sites. Some of these were protected and preserved inside boxes, demonstrating their value as an intact item. Mummified birds also feature in the region’s past, with species that had to be transported (without them dying) across the over 3,050-meter (10,000-foot) high Andes, where difficult terrain and sudden cold snaps are common.
To carry out their analyses, the team looked at museum collections, studying bird remains that were found to date from 1000 to 1460 CE – an era that saw the sun set on the Tiwanaku empire as the Inca came through. Looking at 27 complete or partial remains of scarlet macaws and Amazon parrots from five sites in the Atacama they used zooarchaeological analysis, isotopic dietary reconstruction, radiocarbon dating, and ancient DNA testing to establish how many and what kind of birds made the 300-mile (483-kilometer) journey from the Amazon.
The condition of these animals, even so many centuries on, is evidence that animal welfare was low on the priority roster of residents in the Atacama, as they appear to have been routinely plucked of their feathers in life. Furthermore, the mummification positions of the birds were unusual, with some preserved with their mouths open and tongues out, or others with their wings spread.
"We have absolutely no idea why they were mummified like this," said Capriles in a 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."
"It is clear that people valued these birds enormously and so did we as their remains allows one to uniquely peer into the past of people and animal relations,” said Capriles in an email to IFLScience. “We hope to continue studying different aspects of the complex human-animal interactions that developed in the Atacama Desert and other regions of South America over time.”