Mummified Bird, Baby Found in Cave Shed Light on Earliest Desert Farmers

Archaeologists called to investigate a cave on a rancher’s property have discovered an unusual burial that’s providing new insights into the ways of some of the earliest farmers of the Chihuahuan Desert.

In the cave, researchers have found the skeleton of an infant, the lower half of a man whose legs were tied together, and the remains of a scarlet macaw, all buried among a scattering of stone points, textiles, and other artifacts.

Some of the remains — both human and avian — had been naturally mummified by the arid climate. [Read about more recent research into natural mummies: “Mummified Man, Bundled Baby Change View of Ancient Burials in Texas“]

The find was made in central Chihuahua, near the town of San Francisco de Borja some 300 kilometers from the Texas border.

It’s the first archaeological site ever found in the area, and it’s yielding new clues about the lives of some of the region’s earliest argriculturalists and a period known as the Late Archaic, some 2,000 years ago.

“This is one of the few archaeological contexts registered by archaeologists in this region,” said Dr. Emiliano Gallaga Murrieta in an interview with Western Digs.

The naturally mummified remains of a scarlet macaw — a tropical bird that’s not native to the Chihuahuan Desert — are among the intriguing funerary goods found in the grave. (Photo courtesy Emiliano Gallaga INAH. May not be used without permission.)

“If we confirm the hypothesis [that this burial dates from] the Late Archaic, we could have a site with information about the transition to agricultural, sedentary communities in the region.” [Read about a young woman’s grave found from this period: “Ancient Grave of Teenage Girl May Reveal Secrets of Southwest’s Earliest Farmers“]

Gallaga and his colleagues fromof Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History were called to the site in March, after a rancher in San Francisco de Borja was using heavy equipment to level the floor of the cave and uncovered strange remains, including the mummified head of a macaw.

“Many archaeological discoveries are the result of planned research and are conducted during years of intellectual efforts,” Gallaga said. “Others are the result of an accident.”

Over the next two weeks, excavations unearthed human remains as well, beginning with the partial skeleton of a toddler.

The sex of the child is unknown, as is its exact age, although Gallaga estimates that it was between one and three years old at the time of death.

“This burial was close to the surface and very disturbed,” he said.

The team then unearthed the partial remains of at least one more person, consisting of a partial pelvis and two sets of large leg bones, which had been bound together with cordage.

Such bound partial remains have been found in other, more recent contexts in northern Mexico, Gallaga explained.

“It is not uncommon to find reburied partial skeletons,” he said.

The practice was common, for example, in the large pre-contact city of Paquime, or Casas Grandes, about 350 kilometers to the north, a trading hub that connected the cultures in the southern tropics to the Ancestral Puebloans and beyond.

Beginning around 1100, the people of Paquime were known to dig up and re-bury their dead, sometimes depositing their bones in bundles or large jars, possibly so that they could be interred with relatives.

Assuming that this newly found cave site predates Paquime, the San Francisco burial could be early evidence of this practice, Gallaga said.

“Probably the burial was [originally] buried somewhere else, and then only half of the body was reburied at the cave,” he said.

“But why? We do not know.

“The remains of the baby were close to the half adult burial, but we do not know if they are related.”

The two sets of remains were surrounded with an array of goods, including baskets, textiles, a bag or dress made out of deer hide, and a large sea shell.

But conspicuously absent from the graves were ceramics and other artifacts associated with the so-called Medio Period, when Puebloans built and settled in farm and trade centers like Paquime. [Read about recent discovery from this period: “First Evidence of Corn Beer in Southwest Discovered on Teeth From Ancient Burials“]

Grave goods also included 1) an ear of corn, 2) a squash, 3) textiles, 4) worked deerskin and 5) a coiled basket. (Photo Emiliano Gallaga INAH. May not be used without permission.)

This absence suggests that these graves predate the establishment of Paquime, around the year 700, Gallaga said.

“[Based on] the lack of material from the Medio Period and the presence of some diagnostic material, we think the cave is Late Archaic, but only carbon-14 [dating] will prove or contradict this hypothesis,” he said.

This early date also lends special significance to the macaw, Gallaga pointed out, because the tropical birds, like seashells, are not local to the high desert of Chihuahua.

The discovery of the bird in this pre-Medio Period burial suggests that long-distance trade in exotic goods — and wildlife — pre-dated Paquime by centuries.

“This finding verifies once again that the [mountains of Chihuahua] have been a cultural corridor between the coast and the desert north with the south,” Gallaga said, in a separate press statement. [Learn more about Gallaga’s research into ancient trade networks: “Mesoamerican ‘Fool’s Gold’ Mirrors Found in Arizona Reveal Ties to Ancient Mexico“]

In his interview with Western Digs, he added, “At the end of the day, this discovery shows us that there is still a lot to do in the northern Mexico region, archaeologically speaking.”

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  1. Linda Klock

    Scarlet macaws do not have green on their heads. If that is orange on the head as well, this is a hybrid. Based on the beak, Buffon’s hybrid.