Ancient Puebloans Probably Had Farms for Macaw Feathers

Some archaeologists recently studied a lot of old bird bones.

Please don't take my feathers.
Please don’t take my feathers. Rusty Clark/CC BY 2.0

One of the primary sources of nourishment for ancient Puebloans, who are indigenous to the southwestern parts of North America, was corn, which they farmed in dry conditions with great skill. Puebloans’ farming skills apparently went beyond the fields, though, according to new research: it also extended to the feathers of birds. 

As reported in Nature, archaeologists studied macaw skeletons from a trio of New Mexico pueblos, in addition to other sites, including bones and feathers from macaws dating back to between 300 and 1450.

Scarlet macaws planning an escape?
Scarlet macaws planning an escape? Nina Hale/

Among the wing bones, they found bumps that they say indicates feathers having been deliberately plucked by humans. According to Nature, the flight feathers of a macaw are rooted in the bone, and yanking them out could have led to the raised lumps. In addition, the remains showed evidence of malnutrition and broken bones, indicating that the birds would have needed assistance (like maybe from humans) to eat and survive.

All of the findings, in other words, make the case for what researchers suspect happened: a feather farm.

And while that sounds a little bleak, archaeologists said the incentive for handlers was to keep the captive birds happy and healthy, in part because the birds had great spiritual and cultural significance to Puebloans and in part because a happier bird has better plumage. 

“People were doing their utmost to keep them alive,” one archaeologist who studied the bones told Nature

Their relationship, in other words, was complicated.