November 11, 2012

Big Bird(s)

Filed under: Pre-Clovis, Uncategorized — ArchaeoFriend @ 11:55 am


I realize it is very dangerous for an archaeologist to mention dinosaurs, but the Barney pic just got me thinking.  And this thinking leads my brain down so many paths at once.  A recent news story caught my eye, although it was about a flying creature that lived during the late Cretaceous — many, many (~67) million years before people.  The article looked at research on functional anatomy that had allowed scientists to reconstruct how the largest flying creature (with a wingspan of 34 feet!) managed to get off the ground and fly.  This amazing creature was Queztalcoatlus, and its size and name connect with several things in archaeology that I find fascinating.

A beautiful Quetzal bird, whose feathers were used as prestige items by the Aztecs and other cultural groups

First, one thing that strikes me is that it is yet another use of the Nahuatl language, spoken in the Aztec capital.  Quetzalcoatl was the feathered serpent god, an excellent name choice for a huge pterodactly-like creature that lived back when dinosaurs roamed (and soared, and slithered, and swam).  I am struck by how many words English has received from the Aztecs, and how few (maybe one or two) from Mayan languages (like Yucatec).  Nahuatl words like tomato, potato, guacamole, avocado, cocoa, and jicama are just a few borrowed words (that make me hungry — I must need lunch).  One beloved word of archaeologists from the Aztecs is atlatl.   There must have been a word for that in some ancestral Indo-European language, but it fell out of use along the way.  I also find it ironic that the Inca domesticated the tomato and potato, but the Quechua words for those domesticates was disregarded in favor of Nahuatl.

(If you want to see a youtube video of an atlatl, just click here)

Another thought that struck me, yet again, when reading about this huge creature was that today’s birds are somewhat smallish compared to those our ancestors saw during the Ice-Age.  Teratorns with wingspans of 14 feet lived in areas of the Americas until about 11 or 12 thousand years ago.  Considering we have evidence of people living in Chile at 12,500 years ago, people must have seen some of these huge birds.  What was a single feather like?  I love contemplating Teratorns while looking at this inspired photo:


And wouldn’t it be cool if a teratorn feather were recovered from an archaeological site?  (It probably wouldn’t be from this species, but a similar, slightly smaller one)

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