The brilliantly colored plumage of the bird of paradise, native to New Guinea, was used for headdresses to identify a tribe’s fighting men. Beyond New Guinea the feathers entered the collections of exotic goods that kings amassed as a sign and consequence of their wealth. They were part of the treasures of eighth-century kings in Sumatra and China. Trade in the plumes can be traced as far back as the first century B.C.E., and it continued until the 1920s, when the birds were almost extinct and fashions had changed.
Hunters in the area of New Guinea known as Bird’s Head captured the brightly colored male bird of paradise by shooting it with bow and arrow. The entire bird was then skinned and its legs, skull, and coarse wing feathers removed. The inner cavity was treated with wood ash and the prepared bird was smoke-dried. Birds for export were stored in sealed bamboo tubes or palm leaf wrappings and hung near fireplaces to protect them from damage by insects. Sailors from Indonesia’s Aru and Kai Islands, which lie off the Bird’s Head promontory, exchanged baked sago loaves for the plumes.
By the time Portuguese traders sailed the seas of eastern Indonesia in 1512, they were witnessing intricate trade networks. Traders from the Aru and Kai islands brought bird of paradise feathers, parrot skins, and aromatic tree barks, together with their own locally processed sago loaves, to Banda. The Bandanese consumed sago as a food staple. They added the New Guinea products to their own nutmegs, coconuts, and fruit, then transported this cargo to the Maluku islands. Traders from south China and Indian ports sailed to Melaka and Java to pick up spices, aromatic woods, pearls, and feathers for imperial sales agents in China and markets in India. Arab traders who visited Indian ports carried the bird of paradise feathers and other jungle and sea produce to markets in the Middle East and, eventually, Europe. By the thirteenth century the feathers that formed the headdress of New Guinea warriors also adorned the helmets of knights in Europe’s courts.