CEB Committe on Evolutionary Biology

Identifying the feathers in Amazonian artifacts

John Bates (front) and fellow Field Museum curator Dave Willard identifying the feathers in this collection of Amazonian artifacts.

John Bates (Field Museum curator and CEB faculty member) recently helped identify the species of birds whose feathers were used to decorate a set of Amazonian artifacts collected in the 1960’s.

This work was featured in an article written by Joshua Engel and posted on the Field Museum’s website. The full article can be found here. An excerpt is below.

What are the feathers in those Amazonian headdresses?
Friday, January 30, 2015 by Joshua Engel

Working at the Field Museum, I get to see some pretty special things. Whether it's because of rarity, antiquity, or something that's just plain weird, the museum provides surprises in abundance. Today was one of those days where routine gave way to surprise when Dylan Lott, a graduate student in Anthropology at the University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC), showed up needing help identifying feathers. These weren't just any feathers, they were feathers attached to incredible artifacts that a UIC professor had collected from an Amazonian tribe called the Parintintin in the late 1960s. When Professor Waud Hocking Kracke passed away in 2013, his will stipulated that the items--which include headdresses, bows and arrows, jewelry, and more--should be returned to the Parintintin.

Dylan took up the cause and is now trying to work through the bureaucracy of obtaining the right permits to repatriate the items to Brazil, which is being funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation. In order to get the permits, first he needed to identify the species that the feathers came from. So he brought them to The Field Museum, where Adjunct Curator Dave Willard and Associate Curator John Bates, experts in South American birds, set about trying to identify them. Some were easy--many of the feathers came from brightly colored macaws--but some were trickier, so Dave and John went into the collection repeatedly to pull out specimens from likely candidates. Ultimately they were successful, and identified feathers from two types of macaws (Blue-and-yellow and Scarlet or Red-and-green), a cotinga, Razor-billed Curassow, Mealy Parrot, Ornate Hawk-Eagle, and domestic chicken. There were also reptile and mammal teeth, and possibly shark vertebrae.