North Central American Scarlet Macaw (Ara macao cyanoptera)

The scarlet macaw, which is native to the tropics, may have been bred by prehistoric North Americans more than 1,000 years ago. Credit: Roland Seitre/Minden Pictures/Getty

Archaeology

Americans farmed a huge and raucous parrot a millennium ago

The noisy scarlet macaw, which can reach nearly 90 centimetres in length, was bred far from its tropical habitat.

Prehistoric North Americans began breeding parrots more than 1,000 years ago — an enterprise that supplied the valuable birds to a large swathe of what is now the southwestern United States.

The scarlet macaw (Ara macao) is native to the American tropics, but the skeletons of one subspecies have been found at numerous ancient sites in arid country far to the north. To understand the parrots’ path to the desert, Stephen Plog at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Douglas Kennett at Pennsylvania State University in University Park and their colleagues analysed macaw bones from archaeological excavations in New Mexico.

All the bones were dated from AD 900 to AD 1200, and DNA analysis showed that the birds were closely related to each other and to some macaws now living on Mexico’s Gulf Coast. The results suggest that the New Mexico macaws had been bred in captivity in a location somewhere between central Mexico and the northern communities that procured the birds for rituals and as status symbols.