Mummified Birds in The Atacama Desert Reveal a Truly Dark Side of History

The harshest extremes of Chile's Atacama Desert are more apparent the more you look. Phenomena is both amazing and mysterious, sometimes bordering on alien.
It wasn't just the environment that made this place so dry. The ancient inhabitants of the island, who were forced to make do with a dry place that wasn't best suited for hosting them, traded everything they could find.

Sometimes it was just the bright feathers of colorful birds that were unceremoniously brought to a desert where they weren't supposed to be, but were meant to be buried in.

Jose Capriles, an anthropological archaeologist from Pennsylvania State University, explained that "what we consider acceptable interactions to animals under our care was very differently back then."

"Some of these birds didn't live a happy existence." They were kept for producing feathers, and their feathers were removed as soon as they were fully grown in.

Mummified scarlet macaw. (Calogero Santoro/Jos Capriles)

Capriles is a specialist in discovering pre-Columbian American culture's bizarre oddities.

Eliana Flores, Eliana's mother, was also on the trip. She co-authored a study that examined the lives and deaths of more than two dozen mummified and partially-mummified parrots located in the Atacama Desert.

The research revealed that at least six species parrots were originally found in five desert archaeological sites. These remains range from 1100 to 1450 CE.

The authors stated that the feathers of tropical birds were a symbol of economic, spiritual, and social status in the precolombian Americas.

"In the Andes finely made clothing and textiles containing multicolored parrot feathers were prized by religious and political elites.

The colorful birds probably lived in miserable captivity behind the draperies of this amazing fabric. They were far removed from their Amazonian rainforest home.

(Capriles et al., PNAS, 2021)

Sometimes the feathers were taken from other places and brought into the Andes in special containers. However, the remains of 27 macaws and parrots that were examined here indicate that many other birds were brought to the desert specifically for their vibrant plumage.

The feather trade in the area dates back to at most 5050 BCE, when the Chinchorro Mummies were discovered. Even thousands of years later, feathers are still an important feature in clothing, hats and headdresses.

The majority of the mummified birds in the new study were first found at Pica 8, an archaeological site located near an oasis community within Atacama Desert. It is still being used today.

But once upon a while, these people buried their birds with them.

Researchers wrote that "most birds were placed in direct connection with human burials", noting that the tails of parrots were often removed.

Some animals were seen in elaborate positions, their tongues sticking out and beaks open. This could have been due to ritualistic practices that invoke parrots' ability mimic human speech. Others spread their wings as if they were destined to fly forever in the afterlife.

Many of them had their wings broken or their feet strapped during their time on Earth. However, researchers observed that some animals were treated with care, including clipping their claws and beaks.

Capriles stated that they have no idea how the mummified bodies were made. They were preserved by being eviscerated via their cloaca, which is a common reproductive and excretory opening. They were often wrapped in bags or textiles.

It is not possible for these birds to be transported by llama caravans to the desert. Researchers believe that the trip from Amazon to the desert would have taken several months. However, some birds may have been purchased from areas closer to the desert.

They were kept as pets and treasured for their beautiful feathers.

These findings were published in PNAS.

This article was first published in April 2021.