New evidence shows for the first time that the North American Southwest was home to a smattering of scarlet macaw breeding centers as early as 900 AD. Prized by the prehistoric residents of New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon for their religious and cultural significance, macaws appear to have been raised in one of the first sustainable systems of non-agricultural animal husbandry in this region, a nod to the sophistication of early residents of the American Southwest.

Brightly colored scarlet macaws are native to the tropics. So how’d they end up in New Mexico? (Flickr/Nina Hale in Smithsonian Magazine).“It’s in [native peoples’] social memory how important macaws were,” says Erin Smith, a doctoral candidate in anthropology at Washington State University. “Even at points in history when trade relationships broke down, they were a significant part of the culture.”

The presence of an early aviary indicates that villages of this era were already starting to specialize in sectors of business: Raising macaws served one purpose and one purpose alone—but met growing demand for a highly valuable commodity.

“For a long time, people doubted there were these intense connections [between such distant locales],” says Smith. “This paper is providing solid DNA evidence of these connections, and how complex and dynamic these relationships were.”

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