The Scarlet Macaws of Arroyo Hondo Pueblo

Patricia Crown

Patricia Crown is an archaeologist and faculty member in the Department of Anthropology at the University of New Mexico. She has conducted research in the Hohokam, Mogollon, and Ancestral Pueblo areas. Her current research concerns chocolate, cylinder jars, and ritual at Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon. Her interest in macaws stems from her research on cacao, another species brought to Chaco from the Mesoamerican tropics. She organized two advanced seminars at the School of Advanced Research, one with W. James Judge on Chaco and Hohokam archaeology, and one on gender perspectives in southwestern archaeology. 

The Scarlet Macaws of Arroyo Hondo Pueblo 

Two scarlet macaw burials and one additional bone confirm the presence of at least three scarlet macaws at Arroyo Hondo Pueblo (Lang and Harris 1984:115). Symbolic of the sun, south, summer, salt and rainbows for Pueblos (Tyler 1991:13), scarlet macaws are symbolic of much more for archaeologists: ritual activity, Mesoamerican exchange networks, socio-political complexity, water control, and animal husbandry. Here, I explore what these birds have to tell us about the lifeways of people of Arroyo Hondo. I first discuss the life cycle of the scarlet macaw to create a context for understanding what might be involved in obtaining and keeping the birds. I then review what is known about scarlet macaw use among prehispanic Southwest/Northwest populations based on faunal remains, feathers, imagery and contextual information. Finally, I discuss the possible implications of the remains from Arroyo Hondo. This piece provides a short version of a much longer article published in KIVA (Crown 2016), with some overlap in text, but focused on the Arroyo Hondo macaws. 

Scarlet Macaws (Ara macao Linnaeus 1758): Habitat and Habits 

Scarlet macaws come from the tropics of South America and Mesoamerica, living naturally in lowlands up to 1000 m in altitude. Relative to Arroyo Hondo, the closest scarlet macaws are found in southern Tamaulipas on the east coast and Oaxaca on the west coast of Mexico, about 1600 km away. Scarlet macaws have red heads and upper bodies, white eye patches, blue and yellow wings, and long red and blue tail feathers; there are three subspecies (Abramson and Thomsen 1995:24). They grow to an average of 85.6 cm in length, with a wingspan of 114.3 cm (Abramson and Thomsen 1995:7), making them among the largest of all macaw species. 

Scarlet macaws mate for life and live in the wild up to 50 years, longer in captivity. Females lay 1-4 eggs in a tree cavity sometime between November and February. Chicks hatch between December and March. Typically only one or two birds survive; predators, parasites, and malnutrition kill the others (Nycander v. M. et al. 1995:431). Parents feed their chicks until they reach 4-6 months of age (Abramson 1995b:195, 228-9; Nycander v.M. et al. 1995:431). They fledge (fly from the nest) at 9-12 weeks. Their twelve tail feathers are fully grown by around six months of age (Clubb n.d.; Nycander v. M. et al. 1995). In the wild, they leave their parents at around a year of age (Vaughan et al. 2009), but continue to grow muscle mass until they are around 18 months of age (Abramson 1995a:80). 

In the wild, macaws eat fruits, flowers, bark, leaves, and shoots (Nycander v. M. et al. 1995:424). Humans can remove chicks from the nest at around seven weeks of age or later and feed them pre-chewed food until they wean; in captivity, they require feeding 4 times a day by seven weeks of age. Scarlet macaws may begin mimicking human speech at around 7 months of age. Scarlet macaws molt about one-third of their feathers one to two times per year. The birds reach sexual maturity at 3-5 years of age. They are not sexually dimorphic, so determining the sex of a macaw is impossible without DNA or seeing one lay an egg. This would make obtaining a breeding pair difficult. Females will lay unfertilized eggs, so eggshells alone are not evidence of breeding. 

In the absence of a mate, macaws become attached to their human, complicating exchange of lone birds. Macaws can be difficult, as blogs by bird owners attest; they can use their powerful beaks to chew through almost anything, they are extremely noisy, and they can be aggressive. Macaws vocalize for 5-10 minutes several times a day so loudly that they can be heard from at least 8 km away (Wilson n.d.). 

Scarlet Macaws in Archaeological and Historical Contexts 

Faunal analysts have identified most of the archaeological parrots found in the Southwest/Northwest as scarlet macaws (Hargrave 1970;McKusick 2001). This identification is not without controversy. The green military macaw ranges into northern Mexico (Bullock and Cooper 2002:2). While analysts argue they can distinguish the two species from their skeletal remains, not all ornithologists are convinced (Bullock and Cooper 2002; Ruble 1996). For purposes of this discussion, I assume that the published identifications of macaws to species level are accurate. 

Historical documents attest to the importance of macaws among the Pueblos over the last five centuries. Early Spanish expeditions documented Mesoamerican natives trading feathers with northern groups for turquoise (Bandelier 1981:47; Schroeder 1991:14). Live parrots were recorded in the Verde Valley in the 1580s (Schroeder 1991:15). In 1716, Father Luis Velarde stated that the Pimas at San Xavier del Bac and neighboring rancherias raised many macaws with “feathers of red and other colors,” (almost certainly scarlet macaws) and stripped the feathers from the birds in the Spring for adornment and offerings (Schroeder 1991:17; Wyllys 1931:129). As late as 1859, New Mexico Puebloans brought buffalo hides and other products to Sonora (probably Guaymas) to exchange for parrot feathers, coral and shell (Bandelier1981:77). 

Nineteenth century documents report live macaws kept at Zuni, Laguna, Isleta, San Felipe, and Santo Domingo, as well as macaw feathers at Sandia, San Juan, San Ildefonso, Santa Clara, and Nambe Pueblos (Schroeder 1991:18-20). Fewkes (1900:706) states, “Birds were among the first animals to which property-right attached among the Hopi, and of these the more important were the eagle, the turkey, and the parrot.” Based on clan ownership of eagles, Fewkes (1900) suggests that clans owned parrots as well. Trade among the Pueblos in macaw feathers is noted in many historical documents (Schroeder 1991:20). 

Among the Pueblos today, macaws symbolize the sun and the south (Dozier 1970:206). Macaws are also associated with summer and salt gathering. The red, blue, yellow, and white colors of the scarlet macaw feathers are important directional colors among the Pueblos (Dozier 1970:205). Pueblos with a macaw clan include Hopi, Zuni, Acoma, Laguna, Zia, Santa Ana, and San Felipe (Hodges 1896). Many Pueblo stories include parrots or macaws (Greiser 1995; Tyler 1979). 

Pueblos use birds and their feathers for ceremonial, ritual, or sacrificial purposes or as pets (Durand 2003:156; Gnabasik 1981; McKusick 2001:2-4; Tyler 1991). Roediger (1941:71) notes that the Pueblos valued the feathers of the macaw the most highly of all feathers. As part of ritual offerings, the Pueblos use feathers to create prayer sticks and prayer feathers (lose or tied together without a stick) for use as payment or prayer request (Parsons 1939:285, 291). Macaw feathers also adorn Corn Mother and other fetishes (Gnabasik 1981:187; Tyler 1979:5). Macaw feathers are prominent in ceremonies, particularly dance poles/standards and dance costuming including some masks, wands, and tablitas (Gnabasik 1981:182, 191; Parsons 1939: 592; Tedlock 1984:256). Macaw feathers are associated with kachinas, “They wear macaw feathers because the macaw lives in the south and they want the macaw to bring the rains of the south” (Bunzel 1932:863). Stuffed parrots are an important part of some weather ceremonies (Parsons 1939:686-687, 688) and are placed on altars at some Pueblos (Gnabasik 1981:191). 

Feathers generally represent breath, the symbol of life (Roediger 1941:76). Feathers of particular birds give the wearer the characteristics of the bird, and because they are light, feathers make the wearer light (Parsons 1939:291). Importantly, feathers used in ceremonies should come from live birds (Dumarest 1919:216n; Parsons 1939:291). I could not find any descriptions of macaw feather plucking, but historical accocunts of eagle feather plucking may be similar (Stevenson 1904:114). 

There are no historical descriptions of macaw sacrifice either, but there are descriptions of eagle sacrifice, which again may be similar. As described by Fewkes (1900:702) for Hopi, eaglets taken from clan nests were ceremonially cleansed, plucked, and then killed by putting pressure on the sternum. This ritual occurred in July when the katsinas were sent home, the eagle sacrifice sending the bird home carrying prayers and offerings (prayer feathers tied to the bird’s wings and feet) “to the cloud people for rain” (Tyler 1979:45). The dead bird was buried in a special eagle cemetery near the pueblo. At other pueblos, eagles were finally sacrificed after many years of plucking, “to carry a final prayer for rain to the kachinas as clouds” (Stoller 1991:44). 

Prehispanic evidence for scarlet macaws in the US Southwest/Mexican Northwest includes birds, feathers, and imagery (Crown 2016). As of April 2016, the earliest osteological evidence for scarlet macaws in the Southwest/Northwest comes from the Hohokam area, where isolated bones of two macaws were found at Snaketown dating to around A.D. 600 or 700 (McKusick 2001:Table 2: Vokes and Gregory 2007:330). The earliest scarlet macaws in the Ancestral Pueblo area date to circa A.D. 900-975 (Watson et al. 2015) and come from Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon. In the Mimbres area, scarlet macaws date primarily A.D. 1000-1150 (Creel and McKusick 1994:Table 1). Macaw remains are found concentrated in the Hohokam, Flagstaff, Chacoan, and Mimbres areas before A.D. 1250, and in the Hohokam, Western Pueblo, and Northern Rio Grande areas after A.D. 1250 (Vokes and Gregory 2007). The largest number of macaws comes from the site of Paquimé in northern Chihuahua, where archaeologists recovered 322 scarlet macaws, along with 81 Military Macaws and 100 specimens of undetermined macaw species (McKusick 2001:73). All but one of the macaws from Paquimé came from post-A.D. 1275 contexts (McKusick 2001:74). 

A recent isotopic study indicates that many of the macaws hatched at Paquimé, while some were imported from the south (Somerville et al. 2010). Adobe cages, macaw feces, and eggshells support this interpretation (Holeman 2014: Somerville et al. 2010:126). As the authors recognize, the isotopic values could potentially reflect many environments in Mexico with isotopic values similar to Paquimé, (Somerville et al. 2010:128, 133). There is evidence suggesting macaw breeding at other sites in northern Chihuahua as well (Minnis et al. 1993). 

The age distribution of the Southwest/Northwest scarlet macaws is important for interpretations of their use. Based on the aging skeletal markers developed by Hargrave (1970), of 128 birds of known age (and ignoring the Paquimé birds), 106 or 83% were between 10-12 months of age at the time of death. Only 7 (5%) were of breeding age or older (McKusick 2001:Table 2). Even at Paquimé, 88.8% of the birds recovered were under 4 years of age. There are possible problems with the highly specific age determinations, but there seems to be no doubt that most of the birds are below breeding age. 

Based primarily on the age distribution, archaeologists believe that most scarlet macaws were sacrificed as part of ceremonial activity. McKusick (1974:276) describes possible methods for ritually terminating the macaws, either by pushing the windpipe against the back of the throat with a thumb, or by severing the spinal cord by separating the cervical vertebrae. As she points out, either method would be bloodless, as would the method of pushing down on the sternum described by Fewkes for eagles at Hopi. Olsen (1990:58) found that a sharp blow to the head ritually terminated a scarlet macaw from Grasshopper. There is also evidence for decapitation of macaws at some sites (Creel and McKusick 1994:518; Di Peso 1974:289). 

In addition to the macaw bones, scarlet macaw feathers occur in Southwest/Northwest sites, dating primarily between A.D. 1000 and 1400 (Borson et al. 1998). These include isolated feathers, parts of prayer sticks, part of a fetish, an apron, a cotton cloth interwoven with feathers, and a bag lined with feathers (Ellis and Hammack 1968:28; Greiser 1995:500; Lambert and Ambler 1961:101; Vokes and Gregory 2007:Table 17-4). 

Scarlet macaws are also common images on Southwest/Northwest ceramics, rock art, and murals. It is possible to distinguish images of scarlet macaws even on black-on-white pottery based on their white eye patches, which distinguish them from other macaw and parrot species. Mimbres imagery from around A.D. 1000-1150 is particularly valuable because the birds are depicted interacting with humans and objects, providing information on macaw care. A remarkable Mimbres pot shows an individual removing nestlings from a tree cavity (Thompson, Gilman, and Wyckoff 2015:Figure 1). 

Later ceramic imagery and that from other portions of the Southwest/Northwest tend to depict macaws in isolation from their human companions. A rare parrot image occurs on Hohokam Santa Cruz Red-on-buff (ca. A.D. 850-950) (Haury 1976:231, Fig. 12.72m). Macaw imagery occurs on pottery recovered from areas, such as the Mesa Verde region, where osteological evidence for macaws is lacking. Potters painted macaws on White Mountain Redware at least from A.D. 1175 to 1400 (Carlson 1970). Macaws are particularly common on ceramics dating to the 14th century, where macaws often occur in pairs, with minor differences between each bird, perhaps indicating binary opposition (Crown 1994:165-7). Potters also made macaw effigy vessels, particularly in the 14th century. 

Macaws occur in rock art in the Mimbres area and Northern Rio Grande (Schaafsma 1992:64, 100; 2007:140), as well as the Puerco and Little Colorado Drainages of Arizona (Kelley Hays-Gilpin, personal communication, August 2016), and are depicted in cages in some instances (Schaafsma 1992:100). They are not common images on rock art in Chaco Canyon, but possible parrot images do occur (Jane Kolber, personal communication, May 2016). 

Macaws also occur on kiva murals. Polly Schaafsma (personal communication, March 2016) indicates that there are twenty macaws on the Pottery Mound murals. The actions of the macaws suggest that they are live birds (Eckert and Clark 2009:14; Hibben 1975:60). A Military Macaw was recovered at Pottery Mound (Greiser 1995:500). Macaws or parrots are common on the Awatovi and Kawaika-a murals as well (Smith 1952:127,183). For the Rio Grande area, Schaafsma (2007:142) points out that macaws are more common on murals than rock art. 

In sum, macaws were present in the US Southwest by at least A.D. 700, increasing in numbers between A.D. 1000-1150, and then again in the A.D. 1300s. Populations in Northwest Mexico may have successfully bred macaws at least by A.D. 1300. Macaw feathers were widely used and exchanged throughout the Southwest/Northwest. 

Populations in this area put images of macaws on a variety of media, making them common and recognizable icons particularly after A.D. 1150. Macaw feathers are depicted on kiva murals in at least some of the historic Pueblos (Gnabasik 1981:196-7). Early historical accounts of the Southwest/Northwest attest to the continuing importance of the feather trade. There is continuity in some of the specific uses of macaws from the prehispanic to the historic era, including for costuming and on fetishes. Other uses may have changed. For instance, stuffed parrots are fairly common in historical accounts among the Pueblos, but have not been found in archaeological contexts, although a macaw from Salmon Ruin recovered on a floor with only skull and wing elements, was possibly the remains of a complete skin (Durand and Durand 2008:105) or a stuffed bird. 

Interpreting Scarlet Macaws in the Southwest/Northwest 

As noted at the beginning of this paper, scarlet macaws bear a significant interpretive burden in the Southwest/Northwest, where archaeologists have interpreted scarlet macaws, feathers, and macaw imagery in a variety of ways. While most archaeologists would agree that macaws held symbolic importance for populations in the Southwest/Northwest, archaeologists have interpreted their presence in various ways. Here, I provide a review of those interpretations; I emphasize that macaws likely had multiple meanings in the past just as they do in the present. 

Macaws, Meaning, and Ritual 

Because scarlet macaws are exotic birds native to areas considerably to the south of the Southwest/Northwest and because they had important ritual uses among the historic Pueblos, most archaeologists assume that they were important for ritual observances in the past as well. Details concerning the specifics of such rituals are more difficult to determine, particularly because we must interpret them based on contexts of recovery of dead birds and feather objects. Possible ritual uses include as parts of performances, perhaps including ceremonies involving avian transformation through wearing bird costumes (birds, feathers and wing fans); as parts of altars (stuffed birds and feathers) and fetishes (feathers); as offerings (birds, prayer feathers, prayer sticks); and as sacrifices (birds). Archaeological evidence supports all of these except perhaps the stuffed birds, but the interpretations are based on the ages of the birds, the contexts of their recovery, and the numbers of birds found. 

Several aspects of the archaeological record contrast with the historical record: Mimbres pots show people interacting with nestlings; murals depict dancers holding macaws; and macaws were plucked or skinned, sacrificed and buried in the past as part of a ritual that has not been documented in the past few centuries. Perhaps these uses for macaws were simply not observed, but it is possible that live birds were replaced with stuffed birds during the historic period. 

In a recent article, I discuss the contexts of recovery and bird ages for scarlet macaws in Southwest/Northwest sites generally. Here, I will briefly summarize the much longer discussion from that article (Crown 2016). Archaeologists have recovered macaws from varied contexts, including individual macaw burials (Hill 2000), group burials, burials with humans, in rooms, and in trash. Macaws tend to be buried where humans are buried rather than in isolation or in a separate bird cemetery. The birds were probably plucked before sacrifice based on the size of the graves in which they are found, which are too small to accommodate their long tail feathers. Using Pueblo eagle sacrifices as an analog, the macaws were probably sacrificed to send them “home” with offerings, petitions, and prayers to supernatural beings. Some macaws may have been skinned for stuffing rather than just plucked. Birds that died of other causes may have been discarded in other ways once they had been plucked. 

As noted above, most scarlet macaws recovered in the Southwest/Northwest have been aged to 10-12 months (Hargrave 1970; McKusick 2001). Some scholars have argued that all macaws hatch in March/April (Gilman et al. 2014:102; Rizo 1998:54), and that most of the archaeological specimens were 11-12 months of age at death. In combination, these two patterns have been used to argue that the birds were sacrificed for a Spring Equinox ceremony (McKusick 1974:276; 2001:74). McKusick suggests that this ceremony honored 

Quetzalcoatl, and that the birds were dispatched when they had achieved their adult plumage, particularly their long tail feathers (McKusick 2001:74; Gilman et al. 2014:102; although see Thompson and Brown 2006). 

I have recently discussed potential problems with both the age determinations and the hatching timing for scarlet macaws in Southwest/Northwest sites, both of relevance for understanding ritual use of macaws (Crown 2016). I will not repeat those concerns here, except to note that it is unlikely that all macaws interpreted as 11-12 months of age actually died in that narrow age range, a view shared by others. For instance, Abramson (1995a) was unable to verify the osteological age categories created by Hargrave (1970) using a larger sample of modern birds. Furthermore, in the wild, macaw breeding/hatching is asynchronous, so not all macaws are born in a narrow interval annually. Indeed, even in a single environment, wild macaws hatch any time in the interval from late December to late March (Vaughan et al. 2009), so they would actually be 11-12 months of age anywhere from late November to late March. Unless there was synchronicity surrounding the harvesting of baby birds and only birds of a specific age/size were taken, the birds in the Southwest/Northwest would likely be a variety of ages at the Spring Equinox. Based on these concerns, it is extremely unlikely that most macaws were sacrificed at the vernal equinox. Instead, the bird remains probably represent a much great span of ages, although most were undoubtedly younger than breeding age. 

A question we might ask ourselves though is why a bird associated with summer would be sacrificed for the Spring Equinox. Another vexing question is why such an expensive, rare, exotic bird would be sacrificed with the Spring Equinox when this was not a time of particular ritual importance among the historic Pueblos. Solstices were more important than equinoxes for ceremonial activity among the western pueblos (Ladd 1998:121), but the vernal equinox is not of particular importance among the eastern pueblos either (Ortiz 1969:106, 169n). Was the Spring Equinox of greater importance in the past? More work clearly needs to be done with birds of known age before we accept the current age determinations and the interpretation that the macaws were sacrificed for a spring equinox ceremony (McKusick 1974:276; 2001:74). McKusick suggests that this ceremony honored 

Quetzalcoatl, and that the birds were dispatched when they had achieved their adult plumage, particularly their long tail feathers (McKusick 2001:74; Gilman et al. 2014:102; although see Thompson and Brown 2006). 

I have recently discussed potential problems with both the age determinations and the hatching timing for scarlet macaws in Southwest/Northwest sites, both of relevance for understanding ritual use of macaws (Crown 2016). I will not repeat those concerns here, except to note that it is unlikely that all macaws interpreted as 11-12 months of age actually died in that narrow age range, a view shared by others. For instance, Abramson (1995a) was unable to verify the osteological age categories created by Hargrave (1970) using a larger sample of modern birds. Furthermore, in the wild, macaw breeding/hatching is asynchronous, so not all macaws are born in a narrow interval annually. Indeed, even in a single environment, wild macaws hatch any time in the interval from late December to late March (Vaughan et al. 2009), so they would actually be 11-12 months of age anywhere from late November to late March. Unless there was synchronicity surrounding the harvesting of baby birds and only birds of a specific age/size were taken, the birds in the Southwest/Northwest would likely be a variety of ages at the Spring Equinox. Based on these concerns, it is extremely unlikely that most macaws were sacrificed at the vernal equinox. Instead, the bird remains probably represent a much great span of ages, although most were undoubtedly younger than breeding age. 

A question we might ask ourselves though is why a bird associated with summer would be sacrificed for the Spring Equinox. Another vexing question is why such an expensive, rare, exotic bird would be sacrificed with the Spring Equinox when this was not a time of particular ritual importance among the historic Pueblos. Solstices were more important than equinoxes for ceremonial activity among the western pueblos (Ladd 1998:121), but the vernal equinox is not of particular importance among the eastern pueblos either (Ortiz 1969:106, 169n). Was the Spring Equinox of greater importance in the past? More work clearly needs to be done with birds of known age before we accept the current age determinations and the interpretation that the macaws were sacrificed for a spring equinox ritual. 

The acquisition of a macaw was unquestionably expensive; they came from a long distance, required unusual care, and could be difficult to manage. The effort put into obtaining them makes their sacrifice at a young age all the more curious. Full-grown birds would become sources of feathers for years to come, as did turkeys in the past and eagles historically. So the sacrifice must be seen in light of both the initial expense of obtaining a bird and the loss of such a valuable commodity with great promise for providing feathers for years to come. Sacrificing the birds and expending the feathers in offerings created an on-going demand, but the relatively low volume of birds brought into the Southwest/Northwest indicates that most villages acquired macaws only rarely. The only reasonable conclusion is that, at most villages, macaws had more value in death than in life. I can think of three possible reasons for this: it was not just their feathers but the entire skin that was valued, either for stuffed birds, wing fans, or complete pelts; it was the performance or theatre of sacrifice that was valued; or it was the dead macaw offering that was valued. 

Part of what makes the macaw sacrifice so interesting is that it was an almost pan-Southwest/Northwest phenomenon with a deep history. By at least A.D. 700 and continuing until at least the 1400s, scarlet macaws were brought to Southwest/Northwest sites and then either sacrificed as relatively young birds, or kept for a few additional years. Many large sites have macaws, but so do some small sites. The consistent aspects of the practice are the long-distance exchange for a specific species and the sacrifice. While the practice was widespread and of long duration, the number of birds is too small to justify an argument that they were a necessary part of any annual ritual. If the birds were not sacrificed on a particular date, the bird sacrifice was not then strictly part of a calendrical ritual, because it was not tied to a yearly calendar. Instead, they might be associated with a critical ritual, such as a dedicatory ritual, or a ritual performed at intervals of much less than a year. Perhaps they were obtained and sacrificed only when a village or leader or sodality or social group could afford the expense. 

Macaws and Economics: the Mesoamerican Connection 

At least up until the 14th century, there is no clearcut evidence for breeding macaws in the Southwest/Northwest. After that time, at least some birds might have come from northern Chihuahua. Scarlet macaws are only one of the many exotic items brought into the Southwest/Northwest from Mesoamerica or Western Mexico; these included copper bells, cacao, pseudo-cloisonné, iron pyrite mirrors, and some ceramics. With the widespread distribution of Mesoamerican items in the Southwest/Northwest over a long period of time balanced against the relatively low levels of materials, archaeologists can interpret the evidence in any of a number of ways and much depends on the particular viewpoint of the individual scholar (McGuire 1986, 2011). So archaeologists have viewed these items in ways ranging from evidence that the Southwest/Northwest was closely tied to Mesoamerica to evidence for ongoing exchange relationships to evidence for only minor and sporadic contact. 

In general economic terms, populations in the Southwest/Northwest either created or adopted a value hierarchy that made macaws an important commodity. Ritual discard of both birds and feathers set up a continuing demand. These animal resources may have been important commodities in exchanges or gifting with Mesoamerican people, or Southwest/Northwest people might have traveled south and procured the birds themselves, or the birds might have been traded hand to hand across this large distance. As noted by Pat Gilman and colleagues (2014:103-4; contra Creel and McKusick 1994:517), the small size of the birds depicted on Mimbres vessels suggests that Mimbreños procured the birds themselves and raised them from a young age. And the image of a person taking parrots from a tree cavity nest is compelling evidence that at least some Mimbreños knew or heard about where macaw nests were located (Thompson et al. 2015:Figure 1). If Southwest/Northwest people travelled south and removed nestlings from their nests in tree cavities, they would need to travel a minimum of 1100 km from the Huasteca area on the Gulf Coast (Wyckoff 2009; Gilman et al. 2014:95) to the Mimbres area. 

There are alternatives to this distant travel on foot. Some of the distance might be covered by sea travel either up the Gulf of California or around the Gulf of Mexico. Trading centers might exist, as they apparently did in historic times for Pueblos trading at Guaymas. 

Another possibility is that there might have been villages that bred macaws closer to the Southwest/Northwest in Mexico prior to the growth of Paquimé (Gilman et al. 2014:95). Groups living in the Tucson area apparently raised scarlet macaws in the 1700s, so perhaps there was some macaw breeding in southern Arizona in the past as well. It seems likely that the birds came to the Southwest/Northwest by a variety of means at different times and places. 

Macaws and Politics 

Several lines of reasoning contribute to interpretations of the relationship between scarlet macaws and social inequality in the Southwest/Northwest. First, powerful individuals may have used the birds to seal relationships with other elite or non-elite individuals. Second, the birds may have been visual evidence of the ability of some individuals or groups to acquire exotic species from a great distance, perhaps indicating that those who acquired the macaws had special ties to cosmological forces and distant places (Gilman et al. 2014). Because not every individual, group, or village owned a macaw, the birds might contribute to social inequality (Watson et al. 2015:8242). Third, Gilman et al. (2014:105) argue that the ritual knowledge gained through long-distance travel to procure a macaw gave the macaw owner greater social standing. Finally, as with other animals, individuals might have accumulated macaws as forms of wealth. So macaws potentially served as evidence of long distance exchange partnerships, access to special cosmological forces, access to esoteric knowledge, and even wealth accumulation, and the birds might thus serve as ideological symbols of power and status (deFrance 2009:106). 

The fact is though that most southwestern sites with macaws had only one bird (that we know of). Only 19 sites had more than one bird, including Arroyo Hondo with its three macaws. Even recognizing the possible sampling problems, it is highly unlikely that powerful individuals acquired macaws as a form of wealth accumulation at most times and places in the Southwest/Northwest. The fact that most of the macaws died at a relatively young age indicates that they could not have been used to harvest feathers for more than one to three years, and thus wealth accumulation from feather exchange was not a long-

term possibility. The six sites with ten or more macaws may represent exceptions (Crown 2016). Paquimé remains the only site with evidence for macaw breeding, so gaining a surplus in macaws in other villages would require the same exchange (rather than breeding) mechanisms discussed above. Given our current knowledge, only individuals at Paquimé could acquire wealth through breeding macaws and exchanging the nestlings. 


Furthermore, the contexts of burial suggest ownership by social groups, including at Arroyo Hondo. As noted above, Fewkes (1900) argues that macaws belonged to clans, as eagles did. Rights to own macaws and perhaps rights to use macaw imagery may have provided social standing and inequalities among clans or sodalities, rather than individuals. 

Pat Gilman and her co-authors (2014) have suggested that the women who raised the macaws gained social standing from having the knowledge to raise the baby macaws and gaining knowledge on the long journey to procure them. Yet the small number of macaws recovered at most villages suggests that caring for macaws could only be a specialized occupation at the few sites that had large numbers of birds acquired over a long period of time. 

Finally, the variety of sites and contexts in which scarlet macaws are found indicates that macaws are not always associated with independent indicators of social complexity. While the macaws are found at large sites such as Pueblo Bonito and Wupatki, they are also found at small sites, such as the Rocky Arroyo Site near Roswell, a site dating between A.D. 1250 and 1330, with only three pit structures and a scarlet macaw (Emslie, Speth and Wiseman 1992) and 29SJ1360 in Chaco Canyon, a small site where five macaw bones were found along with a possible bin for raising the birds (Mathien 2003:129). 

Macaws and Water Control 

Charmion McKusick (2001) has argued that macaws are associated with water control in Southwest/Northwest sites. She indicates that macaws were sacrificed at the Spring Equinox in a ritual honoring Quetzalcoatl as the Morning Star and water patron. According to her interpretation, a Quetzalcoatl Cult was present in the Southwest/Northwest, particularly found in sites with water control features for agriculture and domestic water supplies/reservoirs. 

Are scarlet macaws particularly found in association with water control? Or are they primarily found in larger sites, which tend also to have water control features? As more small sites are excavated and extant collections are analyzed, macaw remains are being found in both large and small sites. Finding even one macaw in an archaeological context is a rare event; I suggest that we do not have an adequate sample to demonstrate that scarlet macaws are particularly associated with water control features or sites that have such features. 

Macaws and Animal Husbandry 

As discussed above, physical and isotopic evidence indicates that scarlet macaws were probably bred in Chihuahua by the late 13th century. There is no other evidence for prehispanic breeding of macaws in the Southwest/Northwest. But populations in the Southwest/Northwest had a long history of successful bird husbandry, keeping birds for feathers, ritual purposes, and, in the case of turkeys, eggs and meat. Imagery and archaeological remains indicate that the birds were housed in pens, cages, and aviaries. 

The recovery of a scarlet macaw demonstrates that Southwest/Northwest populations had the knowledge to keep these large parrots alive. Imagery from the Mimbres area also shows the at least some individuals had the knowledge to hand-feed baby macaws. Guano from Pueblo Bonito rooms shows that Chacoans fed weaned macaws pinyon nuts, squash seeds, and corn (Judd 1954:264), while pollen evidence from Paquimé suggests a diet of squash, maize, agave, and amaranth (Di Peso 1974). Isotopic analysis suggests a shift in diet as the hatchlings aged (Somerville et al. 2010:130-131). But while Southwest/Northwest populations knew how to raise and keep scarlet macaws, the high incidence of pathology indicates that their conditions and diet were far from optimal (Hargrave 1970; McKusick 1974:280-281). Furthermore, the birds may not have been treated well; the Paquimé birds show 56 bone fractures, over twice as many as the turkeys from the same site (McKusick 1974:280). McKusick (1974:280) suggests that these breaks represent defensive kicks or blows with a weapon to fend off angry macaws. Some pecking injuries suggest that young birds were kept in too-close quarters (McKusick 1974:280). 

What are the Macaws of Arroyo Hondo Pueblo Trying to Tell Us? 

How do the macaws found at Arroyo Hondo fit into these interpretations? Excavations revealed three macaws at Arroyo Hondo. The earliest macaw was buried in a shallow pit on the east side of Plaza G, just east of the ventilator tunnel of Kiva 12-14-6, and dating to the late 1320s. The bird wings were folded and legs drawn up against the body with the head pointed downward against the breast. Its head was oriented to the south. The pit was too small to accommodate a macaw tail, so the tail feathers must have been removed prior to burial (Lang and Harris 1984:115). The second burial was found along the wall of Roomblock 18 on the south side of Plaza G, in a context dating to the early 1330s. In the shallow pit with this macaw was a chip of turquoise. The body position was similar to the first parrot, except that the head was turned backward to the left, so the body was oriented to the west and the head to the southeast (Lang and Harris 1984:115). The burial pit was also too small to accommodate tail feathers. A third macaw is represented only by an isolated quadrate bone, recovered from Plaza C and dating to the 1380s (although Lang and Harris [1984:115] note that it might represent an earlier disturbed bone). 

In the general Rio Grande area, macaws have been identified at Arroyo Hondo (3), Pecos Pueblo (2), Gran Quivira (1), the Garcia Site (Pojoaque-1), Ogapogeh in Santa Fe (2), Picuris Pueblo (1), Pindi Pueblo (1), Ponsipa’akeri (1) and Pottery Mound (1) (Akins 2011:290-292: Crown 2016:Figure 1; Dombrosky 2015; Greiser 1995; Stubbs and Stallings 1953:126; Vokes and Gregory 2007:Table 17.6). Farther to the southeast, a scarlet macaw was also identified at the Rocky Arroyo site near Roswell (dated to 1250-1330; Emslie, Speth, and Wiseman 1992). Arroyo Hondo Pueblo thus has the largest number of birds in the northern Rio Grande area. Furthermore, two of the birds are the most precisely dated macaws in the northern Rio Grande. 

Meaning and Ritual 

In their discussion of the macaw remains, Lang and Harris (1984:117) suggest that the Arroyo Hondo macaws were likely killed and plucked in rituals associated with the spring equinox when the birds were 11-12 months of age and in full plumage. They further interpret the burial locations in south/southeast orientations as symbolic connections to the Sun (Lang and Harris 1984:117). They note that, “The macaw’s connections with agriculture extend beyond its association with the Sun and summer to its linkage with the rainbow, the mythical Corn Maidens, and the supernatural Muyingwu, or ‘Germinator,’ an underworld lord of crops (Tyler 1964, 1979)” (Lang and Harris 1984:117). McKusick (2001:77) adds that the turquoise found with the younger burial is also symbolically associated with the Sun. 

While the interpretation of the birds as symbolically associated with the sun and south seems reasonable given the long association of scarlet macaws with these meanings historically in the Southwest/Northwest. However, as discussed above, the age determinations for the three birds are problematic and it is questionable whether they all died in a narrow age range. Instead, I conjecture that they probably represent a longer range of ages from around 6 months to just over a year, making their association with a calendrical ritual unlikely. Furthermore, three birds is too few to be a necessary part of any calendrical ritual. It is more likely that the birds were sacrificed for dedicatory purposes as part of one or more critical rituals. The turquoise found with one of the birds may have been an offering to the bird, but, based on an historic Pueblo analogy, it more likely was an offering once tied to the bird’s leg to take home to the cloud people. 


Lang and Harris (1984) do not make a connection between the Arroyo Hondo scarlet macaws and social complexity. Indeed, the contexts in which the birds were buried suggest that they might have belonged to the community or some subset of the community, rather than individuals. For instance, the earlier macaw may have belonged to whatever sodality or social group used the D-shaped Kiva 12-14-6. Likewise, the second burial was placed in the plaza rather than in a room. Neither bird was buried with a human, but they were buried in close proximity to human burials at the site, suggesting that they were afforded the same care at death as humans. 


Lang and Harris (1984:118) suggest that the scarlet macaws reached Arroyo Hondo and other sites in the northern Rio Grande via a trail stretching from west Mexico to the Mogollon Highlands, and then to the northern Rio Grande. However, they do note that the residents of Paquimé were breeding macaws at the time that Arroyo Hondo was occupied, so the macaws might have come from the south and up the Rio Grande (Lang and Harris 1984:244). They note the paucity of trade items from Paquimé in their argument, with the presence of White Mountain Red Ware at Arroyo Hondo combined with the presence of large numbers of macaws at Western Pueblo sites such as Grasshopper Pueblo and Point of Pines Pueblo cited as support for the more westerly trade route for the birds. As more macaw remains are being recognized along the Rio Grande, the possibility that the scarlet macaws arrived at Arroyo Hondo from a southern source seems as reasonable as the western source. Furthermore, the recovery of birds at the Rocky Arroyo site near Roswell and at Pecos Pueblo may indicate that the Pecos River provided another trail for the movement of macaws in the later centuries of the prehispanic era. Ongoing isotopic analysis of the birds may provide clues to their origins. 

Water Control 

Charmion McKusick (2001:76-77) argues that the Arroyo Hondo macaws support her argument for an association between scarlet macaws and water control. She notes that the timing of these macaw burials coincides with “a noticeable increase in water-dependent birds such as Canada Goose, Yellow-headed Blackbird, the loon, and a water-dependent mammal, the raccoon (Lang and Harrris 1984:34,37,123). On the bases of these data, Lang suggests that water impoundments, or stream damming for irrigation purposes, is probable” (McKusick 2001:77). 

As with the larger samples of macaws, the relationship between scarlet macaws and water control features is difficult to assess. As noted above, there are sites with macaws and water control features, and sites with macaws and no water control features, and sites with water control features but no macaws. Generally, water control was important for successful farming in much of the Southwest/Northwest and much of Southwest/Northwest ceremonial life related to water and weather control, so the macaws may well have had this symbolic association. 

Animal Husbandry 

The residents of Arroyo Hondo used a large variety of birds for meat, feathers, bone, eggs, and sacrifice. They kept turkeys. And for a decade or two, they kept macaws. But at least one of the macaws found at Arroyo Hondo suggests that the birds were not in particularly good health. The older macaw skeleton shows bone pathologies that reflect bacterial infection and dietary deficiency (Lang and Harris 1984:117). The macaws of Arroyo Hondo are not alone in showing such pathologies; 47% of the 145 macaws that Hargrave (1970) examined from Southwest/Northwest sites showed various types of pathologies. 


The recovery of scarlet macaws at Arroyo Hondo provides clear evidence of long distance acquisition of exotic species, animal husbandry, and sacrifice at this important northern Rio Grande Pueblo. People acquired the birds, fed them, kept them for some period of time, and then sacrificed, plucked, and buried them. Or perhaps plucked them before sacrificing them so that the feathers came from a living bird, still holding the breath or lightness described among the Pueblos today. They provided at least one with an offering, the chip of turquoise, and buried both in the same areas where humans were buried. This care shows that the macaws were treated with respect, even in death. Their presence at Arroyo 

Hondo shows that the residents of the pueblo took part in a widespread sacrificial ceremony found throughout much of the Southwest/Northwest. There is still much we could learn from the scarlet macaws of the Southwest/Northwest, but first the osteological parameters for aging and identifying to species must be clarified. 

Imagine then Arroyo Hondo Pueblo in A.D. 1330—the muted tones of an adobe and masonry pueblo, the sounds of women chatting while working, children running and playing, men returning from the hunt or fields. These quotidian sounds are broken several times a day by a series of otherworldly, ear-piercing screams and perhaps a flash of red, blue, yellow, contrasting with the drab surroundings. Or, go back less than a year and imagine, if you are able, the warmth of a tree-top nest and day-round parental care; a hand reaching into the nest and surrounding a small feathered form—a baby bird removed from that warmth and safety and shoved into a basket. Bumped along on the back of a human across perhaps a thousand miles of rough terrain, fed strange foods, unable to see where it is being taken, the movement suddenly stops and a hand reaches in and pulls the bird out into its new home—a darkened pueblo room—and a fate no one can imagine. 

Acknowledgments. I wrote this paper at the request of Dr. Douglas Schwartz, as part of his Arroyo Hondo Conversations series at the School of Advanced Research. Initially focused only on the three macaws from Arroyo Hondo, the research took me in directions neither Doug nor I anticipated. My thanks to Doug for placing his birds in my hands and sending me on this unusual journey. I am so sorry that he did not live to see the finished paper on the Arroyo Hondo website, but I am grateful that he read an earlier version and provided insightful comments. He encouraged me to publish the lengthy manuscript and provide something shorter for the website. Kelsey Daly Brown ensured that the Arroyo Hondo website was completed. The other Arroyo Hondo Conversationalists also provided useful comments: Eric Blinman, Dick Ford, Steve Post, Polly and Curt Schaafsma, Jay Shapiro, John Ware, and Chip Wills. I benefited greatly from discussions with Dr. Chip Wills, Dr. Emily Jones, parrot owner Lisa Anderson of the National Museum of the American Indian, and Christy Herbst of Birdie Brains Aviary, who answered many of my questions about macaws. 

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