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Scarlet Macaws and the Monsoon Meridian

The Chaco Meridian is interpreted by Steve Lekson, Ph.D., as a sacred or religious north-south line connecting Aztec, Chaco and Paquimé cultures. I propose that the route also reflects specific observable climatic phenomena , namely early and late monsoon activity along a line roughly following the continental divide. Using this “natural system” I propose that the numerous major large Anasazi/Paquimé towns arranged roughly along this line are situated to specifically capitalize on the “fixed nitrogen” or fertile rainfall along the continental divide as an agricultural strategy. This adds an environmental element to the religious Aztec/Chaco/Paquimé alignment. I have named this route the Monsoon Meridian and propose further that it constitutes at least part of the trade route followed in the Scarlet Macaw trade.

An abundance of evidence upholds the trade in Scarlet Macaws. Originating in the humid tropical lowlands of southern Mexico , the macaws were transported a minimum of 700 miles up to a total of 1400 miles (Bullock and Cooper 2001? and McKusick 2001). I propose two distinct trips of 300-700 miles each, the first from Mesoamerica to Paquimé, Mimbres Valley or perhaps Chaco , and the second from Mimbres/Paquimé to the northernmost Anasazi/Hohokam regions of Kiet Siel and Wupatki. The trade took place over a 700-year period and provides irrefutable evidence that Oasis America cultures were in intimate contact with Mesoamerica during most of this entire time period.

Scarlet Macaws produce vividly colored red, yellow, and blue feathers, which were and still are used in religious costuming and ceremonies. Yet, Scarlet Macaws require intensive care. They hatch in March and must be removed from the nest at seven weeks of age; they then 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. They thus become human-imprinted birds, making it difficult to breed adults; it is easier to capture hatchlings.

Given the care requirements, the continual need to capture new birds, and the distance they had to be transported, Scarlet Macaws were perhaps the single most “expensive” acquisition made by Oasis America cultures. The trade continued, however. Of 504 macaws recovered from Paquimé, only 96 were the locally available Military Macaws. By the late 900s, the Scarlet Macaw trade route ran through the Mimbres River Valley to Chaco ’s sphere of influence. Mimbres pottery motifs and the age of skeletal remains suggest that juvenile macaws were brought to the Mimbres sites, raised there for almost a year, and then traded north in time for the spring equinox religious ceremonies on March 21-22. From AD 1150 to about AD 1200, the trade in Scarlet Macaws branched west to the Sinagua area; more Scarlet Macaws (53) were recovered at Wupatki than at any other site north of Mexico . The Scarlet Macaw trade became inactive in about AD 1200 and did not start again until about AD 1275, when the Pueblo Katsina Cult arose. By this time, the Mimbres Villages were vacated and Paquimé had been built. Paquimé specialized in raising juvenile Scarlet Macaws to a marketable size for trade. Osteology indicates that in the early 1300s inhabitants of Point of Pines in east central Arizona traded large Indian domestic turkeys with Paquimé in exchange for Scarlet Macaws (McKusick 2001 and personal interviews with her).

In my interpretation, the Scarlet Macaw trade, along with the uniform step-fret and other design motifs in ceramics, rock art, and architecture, are clear indications that religious beliefs and practices were shared throughout Oasis America during its 700 year timeframe, including the 250+ years covering the existence of Mesa Verde in the north to Paquimé in the south.

The design of the structures previously interpreted as ceremonial macaw birthing chambers, with their anthropomorphic male “plugs” that fit into round female macaw stones, brings my analysis back to fertility. Though these enclosures have been called macaw nesting boxes, macaws are not likely to breed or nest under the conditions these boxes present. Our alternative suggestion is that the Scarlet Macaws were seen to exit Mother Earth during major religious ceremonies, such as at the spring equinox, and were then lifted by the priest to greet Father Sky. Further, my proposal is that macaw stones were actually water control devices, used as intake/outlet valves in the architectural structures I suggest are sweetwater mulching swamps, rather than ballcourts. In this context, macaw stones have the religious significance of releasing fertile water, thereby completing the rainwater/fertility cycle for the corn crop. Macaw stones show an isomorphic pattering with ballcourt distribution (Whalen and Minnis 1995). However, the actual layout and design of the sweetwater mulching swamp as related to the macaw stone requires further study for full understanding.