Scarlet Macaw Trade Routes


Scarlet macaws may have been the first “rain birds” to arrive in the desert oasis southwest. Originating in the humid tropical lowlands of southern Mexico, scarlet macaws were transported a minimum of 700 miles up to a total of 1400 miles. One of the 700 mile legs was from Mesoamerica to the ancient village of Paquimé, also known as Casas Grandes, in northwestern Chihuahua, Mexico. (Figure 1).


Approximately 15 miles from the archaeological site of Paquimé is the village of Juan Mata Ortiz, commonly known as Mata Ortiz. From the late 1950s Mata Ortiz potters have been collecting pre-Hispanic pottery shards and inspired by images from cave art paintings in the nearby mountains. These ancestral symbols have created a unique artistic language the potters use in their contemporary art forms.


Many of these realistic and abstract symbols are scarlet macaws. Paquimé was an important trade route between Mesoamerica and the southwestern United States. The people of Paquimé raised macaws for their vividly colored red, yellow, and blue feathers that were used in religious dress, trade, and burial ceremonies.


Scarlet macaws required intensive care. They hatch in March and must be removed from the nest at seven weeks of age. They must be carried in baskets, protected from chilling, and fed chewed hominy, often straight from the keeper’s mouth, every few hours, day and night.


In 1958 the Amerind Foundation from Dragoon, Arizona and Instituto Nacional de Antroplogía e Historia (INAH) initiated the Joint Paquimé/Casas Grandes Project (1958 - 1961). Structures designed as “nesting boxes” for the scarlet macaws photographed in Figure 2 were excavated and preserved at the site.


Contemporary potters, such as Jeraldo “Jera” Tena and his wife Norma Hernandez, second generation master potters from Barrio Porvenir in Mata Ortiz, use these ancient macaw images in their slip and clay designs. Their art is exhibited and collected throughout North America. (Figure 3).


Monumento a la Raza Paquimeita (Figure 4), 2007, by Vladimir Alvarado (Mexican, 1938- ), greets travelers as they cross the Casas Grandes River just to the north of Casas Grandes.  Made of bronze, it stands 2.30 meters high. Photo by Jeff Romney.

Figure 1. Scarlet macaw trade routes.

Figure 2. Nesting boxes for the scarlet macaws.

Figure 3. Pottery depicting scarlet macaws by Jera Tena and Norma Hernandez.

Figure 4. Statue of scarlet macaw as travelers enter Casas Grandes from the north.  Photo by Jeff Romney.

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