General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 18 Sep 2020/11 Rabbit
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Article suitable for older students

Dr. Laura Filloy Nadal

Question for June 2015

Did the Maya and Aztecs take feathers for headdresses from other birds [other than quetzales]? Asked by The Wroxham Primary School. Chosen and answered by Dr. Laura Filloy Nadal.

Pic 1: Replica headdress on display at the exhibition ‘Moctezuma II’, Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City, 2010
Pic 1: Replica headdress on display at the exhibition ‘Moctezuma II’, Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City, 2010 (Click on image to enlarge)

Featherwork was one of the most refined, delicate art forms in pre-Hispanic Mexico. A group of specialists, known in Nahuatl as amanteca, were responsible for fashioning multi-colored plumes into all sorts of finery including shields, costumes, headdresses, bracelets, anklets, banners, capes, and fans. These beautiful objects were of enormous importance for the Aztecs, because they served to denote the rank and status of gods, kings, lords, priests, and warriors.

Pic 2: Mexica featherwork in the making, Florentine Codex Book IX
Pic 2: Mexica featherwork in the making, Florentine Codex Book IX (Click on image to enlarge)

From the information provided by 16th century chronicles, we know that fine plumes were employed to fashioned the feathered objects; they mention the use of feathers from: ducks (white and brown), Mexican trogons (red and green), great-tailed grackles (black), red spoonbill (red and pink), great egret (white), hummingbirds, parakeets, scarlet macaws, blue cotinga, and quetzals.
Recent studies made by conservators on the famous “Ancient Mexican Feather Headress” conserved in Vienna, showed the use of feathers from the male quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno) but also from the red spoonbill (Platalea ajaja), blue cotinga (Cotinga amabilis), and squirrel cuckoo (Piaya cayana).

Pic 3: The Mountain, or Mexican, trogon
Pic 3: The Mountain, or Mexican, trogon (Click on image to enlarge)

Fellow Panellist Dr. Caroline Cartwright adds:-

Queztal feathers were very popular for use in Aztec and Maya headdresses (and fans), with five main species of quetzal belonging to the neotropical zone being possible sources: resplendent quetzal, Pharomachrus mocinno; crested quetzal, Pharomachrus antisianus; golden-headed quetzal, Pharomachrus auriceps; white-tipped quetzal, Pharomachrus fulgidus and the pavonine quetzal, Pharomachrus pavoninus. The eared quetzal, Euptilotis neoxenus is now mainly restricted to the Baja Verapaz in Guatemala.
Lozano notes that according to descriptions by Bernardino Sahagún, feathers from other birds were also used, including from the mallard / wild duck, Anas platyrhynchos; snow goose, Anser caerulescens (that migrate to Mexico in winter); snowy egret, Egretta thula and sea hawk, Pandion haliaëtus.

Meneses Lozano, H.M., A forgotten tradition; the rediscovery of Mexican feathered textiles. In, N. Meeks, C.R. Cartwright, A. Meek and A. Mongiatti (eds.) Historical Technology, Materials and Conservation: SEM and Microanalysis. Archetype Publications in association with the British Museum (2012); 69-75.
Sahagún, B., Historia General de las Cosas de Nueva España, 4th edn, Porrúa, Mexico (1981).

Pic 4: The snowy egret
Pic 4: The snowy egret (Click on image to enlarge)

Picture sources:-
• Pic 1: Photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 2: Image from the Florentine Codex (original in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence) scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994
• Pix 3 & 4: Photos from Wikipedia.

‘Vienna’s Mesoamerican Featherworks’

Learn more about the quetzal...

Read Professor Claudia Brittenham’s (much longer) answer to this question...

... And Professor Frances Berdan’s answer too!

Dr. Laura Filloy Nadal has answered just this one question

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