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Bird Skulls Document the Rise of Inequality—11 Centuries Ago

Carbon-dated Macaws suggest a Chaco Canyon social elite existed as early as 900 C.E., challenging the narrative of one of archaeology's great case studies.
Macaw skull. (Photo: Matt Chan/Flickr)

Macaw skull. (Photo: Matt Chan/Flickr)

Inequality in America goes back a long way. Ask an archaeologist, and they'll tell you it dates back to around the 11th century and the "Chaco florescence," a period of massive cultural shift in New Mexico's Chaco Canyon and throughout the desert Southwest. That change is thought to have been the first sign of complex society in the Americas, but a new study of macaw skulls pushes the timeline even farther into the past, and in the process questions the accepted story of America's first social hierarchies.

Even today, "Macaws ... play an important cosmological role in Pueblo religion," says the study's lead author Adam Watson, using the proper name for Southwestern prehistoric cultures. Macaw feathers' red color, for example, corresponds to the South in Pueblo culture. Deploying them in a ritual, "you would be bringing the rains from the South," says Watson, a postdoctoral fellow at the American Museum of Natural History. Macaw feathers were also a status symbol; they came from hundreds of miles away in Mexico and weren't easy to procure.

Trade networks predated complex social structures and perhaps played a "seminal role" in those structures' development.

As a luxury good, macaws provide an important clue to Chaco's development of complex social order. According to the usual story, macaws first showed up in Chaco around 1040 C.E., suggesting the trade networks that brought the birds north didn't exist until relatively late in Chaco's history.

If that story is correct, it would also seem long-distance trade networks weren't around until after the emergence of social hierarchies, complete with leaders and followers, that enabled massive structures like the multi-story, 650-room Pueblo Bonito, which began construction around 850 C.E. It also suggests, Watson says, that trade networks were a consequence of the rise of social order.

But dating things precisely in a place like Chaco Canyon isn't easy, and at least one recent study, which used carbon dating to trace several burials at Pueblo Bonito to the ninth century, shows that older techniques aren't the most accurate. Those findings got Watson thinking: "When did we have the establishment of these trade networks" that brought birds in from Mexico?

To answer that question, the team turned to 14 macaw skulls the AMNH brought back from Pueblo Bonito in the 1890s. Carbon dating the skulls indicated that macaws had arrived in Chaco Canyon between about 900 and 975 C.E. That means instead of being a consequence of social hierarchy as previously thought, trade networks predated complex social structures and perhaps played a "seminal role" in those structures' development, Watson says.

But the results also hint that the rise and eventual fall of social hierarchies in Chaco Canyon took perhaps 150 years longer than anyone had thought. That's more in line with what's known about other societies—monarchies, for example, take many generations to consolidate power—and might tell us something about ourselves, Watson says. Trade, infrastructure, and social status remain important today, and understanding their interplay in the ancient world could help us better understand the world today.

Quick Studies is an award-winning series that sheds light on new research and discoveries that change the way we look at the world.