Circulation of Feathers in Mesoamerica

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Feathers, especially those from colorful tropical birds, were among the most highly prized materials in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. Likewise the craft of featherworking was among the most esteemed in the Mesoamerican world. Feathers were fashioned into exquisite adornments for nobles and gods, worked into fancy textiles for the elite, and provided embellishment for the shields and military costumes of highly achieved warriors. This presentation focuses on the manner in which feathers traveled from hand to hand in the complex process of acquisition, manufacture, and finally consumption during the last century before the Spanish conquest. Emphasis is on the circulation of feathers through well-established channels of tribute, marketplace exchange, �foreign� trade, and elite reciprocity.

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... In the Aztec realm, the most common feathers used were from the Quetzal, Scarlet Macaw, Roseate Spoonbill, Lovely Cotinga, Montezuma Oropendula, Squirrel Cuckoo, White-fronted Parrot, Altamira Oriole and local birds such as the Great-tailed Grackle, Harpy Eagle, and Golden Eagle, Heron, and Hummingbird. Colonial documents indicate that tropical feathers were actively traded throughout the Aztec empire, permitting access in the central highlands to non-local birds, and Berdan describes usage of feathers on items ranging from elite warrior cloaks and shields to loose feathers pasted on the body for everyday celebrations (Berdan, 2006). This information is largely based on documents such as the Codex Mendoza and the Florentine Codex (Berdan & Anawalt, 1997;Sahagún, 1982). ...
... This information is largely based on documents such as the Codex Mendoza and the Florentine Codex (Berdan & Anawalt, 1997;Sahagún, 1982). Aztec featherwork often incorporates trimmed and incomplete feather samples (as in the example of feather mosaics), and bird source identification by ornithologists has been challenging (Berdan, 2006). Recent work by conservators in collaboration with ornithologists has confirmed the identification of feathers from two out of seven of the extant Pre-Columbian feather objects in museum collections in Austria, Germany, and Mexico (Riedler, 2009;Bauernfeind, 2012;Korn, 2012). ...
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Investigation of the light sensitivity of feathers used in Californian material culture revealed that the cultural values held by these materials was crucial for their interpretation. It was evident that feathers are valued both for their tangible and intangible attributes and that tangible qualities, including color and shape, and modification and attachment methods, often have meaning beyond their decorative and practical functions. Several different feather-working cultures, the birds that are important to these communities, how feathers from these birds are used to make featherwork, and how objects reveal changes in tradition over time are examined. Much of this information requires reference to a combination of sources, including historical and contemporary accounts, discussions with native featherworkers, ethnologists and ornithologists, and close examination of feathered objects in museum collections. This multidisciplinary approach leads to a more thorough understanding of feathered objects and aids conservators in better interpreting whether modifications are the result of access to feathers, intentional alterations of cultural use, or museum display.
... It seems clear that macaws and their feathers would have been prestigious and valuable sources of social power to the inhabitants of Paquimé, but age-related patterns in deposition suggest an additional ideological value. Ethnohistoric evidence (Alcalá, 2008;Berdan, 2006;Mongne, 2019;Nelson et al., 2021;Rizo, 1998;Sahagún, 2001) for feather exchange in greater Mesoamerica suggests that demand for macaw feathers was a likely reason for trade and keeping of macaws at Paquimé, though no archaeological examples of macaw feathers were recovered from Paquimé . Aztec leaders exacted tribute to the capitals of the empire in the form of the scarlet macaw's long tail feathers, which were utilized in ceremonial attire and paraphernalia (Guernsey, 2006). ...
The pre-Hispanic settlement of Paquime (1150/1200–1450 CE) in northwestern Chihuahua exhibits extensive evidence of exchange connections with distant communities, including the remains of over 300 scarlet macaws (Ara macao), brilliantly plumed birds whose geographic origins lie at least 1000 km southeast in the humid lowlands of Mexico. Archaeological and historic records indicate that these birds were prized for their many cosmological associations, the multi-colored feathers which were widely traded and used in ceremonial attire, and their ability to mimic human speech. We use archaeological and isotopic investigations to infer the diet and geographic origin(s) of Paquime’s scarlet macaw population. We examine 29 scarlet macaw bone samples from Paquime using radiogenic strontium isotope analysis. Our results demonstrate that Paquime’s scarlet macaw population was primarily raised locally, though Paquime’s inhabitants also acquired scarlet macaws from nearby Casas Grandes region settlements in Chihuahua and extra-regional locales that may have been as far away as their endemic homeland in Veracruz in eastern Mexico. Ultimately, our findings indicate that macaw aviculture at Paquime was complex and not congruent with any single previously proposed model.
... Feathers have largely been the subject of a discrete body of scholarship interested in feathers as objects of exchange, religious and social status symbols, and the prime material for the art of featherworking. In several groundbreaking articles, Frances Berdan (1992Berdan ( , 2006Berdan ( , 2016 demonstrated the importance of feathers in regional economies and tribute networks under the Aztec Empire. Other studies have examined tribute of quetzal feathers (Peterson and Peterson 1992). ...
Birds and their feathers have long occupied a unique place in the social, cultural, and intellectual life of the Americas. This was particularly so in Mesoamerica, where ancient civilizations and colonial societies developed extensive knowledge of birds, their behaviors and habitats, and their vibrant plumage. This special issue brings together scholars from a variety of disciplines, including art history, history, and biology, to promote discussion among the arts, social sciences, and natural sciences on the role of birds and feathers in Mesoamerica. This introductory essay first provides a discussion of the major trends in the scholarship on birds and feathers in ancient and colonial Mesoamerica. It then highlights the contributions of the articles in the special issue to our understanding of the multifaceted roles that both symbolic and real birds and their feathers played in indigenous and transatlantic knowledge systems and societies.
... Plumage throughout the Americas offers a remarkable array of colors, and while the practice of using dyed feathers is documented for the preparatory layer in Aztec Mexican feather mosaics 2 and has been confirmed through analysis, 3 feathers were mainly valued for their natural coloration. 4 Recording plumage color has always been important, though detailing color shifts resulting from display of natural history, ethnographic, or fine arts feather collections is largely unstudied. The preponderance of literature published by ornithologists concerns the relationship between plumage color and avian perception, and the important influence of Displaying Featherwork: What History Tells Us ...
Previous studies suggest that late postclassic and early colonial Nahua viewers understood specific artistic creations to contain tonalli, a solar-derived animating force. This article advances understanding of the animacy of Nahua featherworks by examining attention to tonalli in the various stages of featherwork production. Analysis of a classificatory distinction used in the sixteenth-century Florentine Codex between tlazohihhuitl (beloved feathers) and macehualihhuitl (commoner feathers) suggests that this distinction registers specific types of feathers’ differential ability to contain tonalli. Ultimately, this classification posited tlazohihhuitl as living beings and macehualihhuitl as inanimate materials. The relationship between these two classes of feathers is integral to Nahuatl descriptions of the treatment of specific feather types in the production stages of bird hunting, dyeing and selling feathers, and mosaic construction. Understanding these production practices through Nahuatl descriptions suggests that care for tonalli represented a central commercial and artistic concern in featherwork production.
Interdisciplinary scholarship that combines research questions and methodologies from biology and ethnohistory generates new insights into historical interactions between human and bird populations in ancient and colonial Mesoamerica. Codices, ethnohistorical sources, and surviving feather art point to the religious, economic, and artistic importance of various types of birds to Nahua people. Alongside the well-known resplendent quetzal and lovely cotinga, many additional species were significant to ancient and colonial Nahuas. This article presents potential directions for scholarship that bridge biology and ethnohistory and surveys key resources, including natural history collections and online databases. Finally, the article employs the biological literature to describe eleven bird species of great importance to Nahuas, detailing the species’ appearance and plumage, geographic range, variation, habitat, behaviors, and current status. Ultimately, the article demonstrates how insights from natural history and ethnohistory together allow for a fuller understanding of Nahuas’ material and conceptual interactions with these birds.
Nahua rulers, nobles, and warriors of the late postclassic and early colonial periods used feathers and elaborate feather costumes in a variety of political and sacred rituals. They acquired these prestige items through gift exchange, trade, conquest, and tribute. This article explores a series of meanings that Nahuas attached to birds, plumes, and feather objects when worn on the body, exchanged in rituals, and discussed in historical accounts. It argues that while Nahuas clearly appreciated feathers for their aesthetic value, they also used them to tell histories of Nahua people’s origins, their feats, and their expansion through commerce and conquest. This article finds that the association between plumes, political authority, and personal and state histories made feathers especially potent symbols in narratives and images of the rise of the Mexica and their fall in 1521.
Feather mosaic is a concept developed in order to analyze a series of artistic objects elaborated with feathers by the native population of America. This article begins with a proposal to shift the focus of the approach to the study of ‘feather mosaic’ by taking into account the multiple dimensions of meaning within this art form. It thus considers readings of ‘feather mosaic’ as only iconographic manifestations referring back to European traditions to be incomplete. A study of The Mass of Saint Gregory, Viceroyalty of New Spain draws our attention to the polysemy of these images. The article emphasizes the need to explore new ways of reading that enable us to get closer to indigenous meanings, which have often gone unnoticed. In this way, it proposes to take into account aspects such as the artistic techniques and the types of feathers used, as well as the colors, forms and ‘iconographic’ motifs of the images. By stressing that these images were created with feathers, whose meaning should not be avoided, this article questions the division between content and form.
'Arte Plumario' es un concepto desarrollado para abordar el análisis de una serie de objetos elaborados con plumas por la población nativa de América. Este artículo se propone como punto de partida el replanteamiento del enfoque desde el cual se aborda el 'Arte Plumario', que dé cuenta de las múltiples dimensiones de significado presentes en el mismo. De este modo, se consideran incompletas las lecturas que encuentran en el 'Arte Plumario' sólo manifestaciones iconográficas que se remontan a tradiciones europeas. Partiendo del estudio de La Misa de San Gregorio, Virreinato de la Nueva España, se busca llamar la atención sobre la polisemia de estas imágenes. Se hace énfasis en la necesidad de explorar nuevos caminos de lectura que permitan la aproximación a las significaciones indígenas, que a menudo han pasado desapercibidas. En esta dirección, se propone tomar en cuenta aspectos como las técnicas de confección y los tipos de plumas que se utilizan, junto con los colores, las formas y los motivos 'iconográficos' presentes en la imagen. Se cuestiona la división entre contenido y forma, para recordar que son imágenes elaboradas con plumas, elemento de significación que no se debe eludir.
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