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Published: January 30, 2015

What are the feathers in those Amazonian headdresses?

Joshua Engel, Research Assistant II, Integrative Research Center

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. 

Dr. Kracke's work with the Parintintin was honored in a ceremony in Brazil in 2007. About his work, Dylan writes "Dr. Kracke’s work on Parintintin language, culture, and ritual has also proved to be an invaluable asset to the Parintintin themselves, affording younger generations the chance to hear the words of their mothers and fathers, recover their language, and to connect with aspects of their past lost in the struggle with acculturative and exploitative forces." We're thrilled to have the chance to play a small role in helping this important cultural legacy get returned to their place and people of origin.