AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Like rare gems or high-end cars today, the colorful feathers of parrots and macaws were once signs of wealth and status in the pre-Columbian Americas. The feathers adorned the clothes and headdresses of elites and even carried spiritual significance.
JOSE CAPRILES: You know, in a place with so limited resources and so limited color, if you think about it - there were not a lot of sources of brightly colored things - these feathers were incredibly important.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
That's Jose Capriles of Penn State. He says the birds were raised and nurtured for their feathers and sometimes ritually mummified.
CAPRILES: We've all seen, like, you know, whole chickens on a supermarket. And (laughter) these are - just have a few more feathers, if you will.
CHANG: His team studied the faded feathers and mummies of 27 birds found decades ago at archaeological sites in the Atacama Desert in Chile. Using radiocarbon dating and ancient DNA analysis, the researchers ID'd at least six different species of birds which lived 600 to 900 years ago.
CORNISH: But that leaves the question of how the birds got to these desert oases. The Atacama is one of the driest places in the world and hundreds of miles from where the birds live today.
CHANG: Capriles now thinks the answer may be vast trade routes, which twisted through the craggy Andes and out to the Amazon rainforest - oh, and all done by caravans of llamas.
CAPRILES: So that required quite a bit of sophisticated knowledge - you know, being able to trap the birds, keep them in captivity and then transport them across these high mountains. It was a cultural, social, ritual phenomenon. These feathers really cross-cut these different spheres of value.
CORNISH: The work appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
CHANG: Studying these trade routes was also a personal journey for Capriles. His mother Eliana Flores Bedregal was an ornithologist and co-author on the paper. She died of cancer before they finished the work, and Capriles hopes that, wherever she is, she feels proud of what they achieved.
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