That juicy Butterball or Hutterite-raised turkey that you cooked to savory deliciousness on Thanksgiving Day this year can trace its family tree in the Americas much farther back than the pilgrims and their 1621 party with American Indians.
Recent archaeological research in Tennessee, the Southwest and Mexico has shown that turkeys were some of the first domesticated animals in the Americas.
Over the years Washington State University archaeologists have repeatedly seen evidence, from bones to blankets to DNA extracted from ancient poop, suggesting that the Pueblo people of the Southwest bred turkeys as far back as 200 B.C.
"Turkeys were an important bird symbolically and in practical ways as a source of feathers that kept people warm in the winter," said Bill Lipe, a WSU professor emeritus of anthropology, in a press release. "And they were also important as a food source, probably primarily at periodic feasts and ritual gatherings."
About 1,500 years ago in Oaxaca, Mexico, turkey eggs and small poults were used as an offering in some ancient ritual. The remnants of the eggs and birds were found in archaeological excavations.
"Our research tells us that turkeys had been domesticated by 400-500 A.D.," said Gary Feinman, a Field Museum archaeologist, in a press release. "People have made guesses about turkey domestication based on the presence or absence of bones at archaeological sites, but now we are bringing in classes of information that were not available before.”
The results of the research were published in an article in the “Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.” Feinman was one of the authors of the report.
In Tennessee the first evidence of turkey domestication by American Indians has been dated to 1200 to 1400 A.D. based on the recent publication of research from archaeological sites that contained more male turkey bones than females, which would be an oddity in nature but not if the birds were being raised by humans.
"It appears Native Americans were favoring males for their bones for tools," said Tanya Peres, a Florida State University associate professor of anthropology, in a press release. Peres and graduate student Kelly Ledford wrote about their research in a paper that was also published in the “Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.”
Why were turkeys the go-to bird of the Americas? Whereas Eurasians at the same time had a variety of animals that could be raised for meat — pigs, chickens, goats and cattle — early Americans had only turkeys and dogs, Feinman said.
In addition to providing meat, turkeys would have also been valued for their bones to make tools as well as for their feathers, especially the more colorful males.
"They tend to be much brighter and more colorful than the female species,” Peres said. “Female feathers tend to be a dull gray or brown to blend in to their surroundings since they have to sit on the nest and protect the chicks."
As noted in a 1991 Penn Museum article, feathers were commonly used by Indian tribes to make capes, as fletching on arrows, for colorful headdresses, fans and other items used in ritual ceremonies. Some pictographs and petroglyphs depict birds, and myths impart different qualities to certain birds — including the turkey who is variously considered wily, a show-off as well as gullible.
The eggs found in Oaxaca were an offering of ritual significance to the Zapotec people, where the animals still remain important.
"Turkeys are raised to eat, given as gifts and used in rituals," Feinman said. "The turkeys are used in the preparation of food for birthdays, baptisms, weddings and religious festivals."
Ledford is collecting data from additional sites across the southeastern United States to see if the pattern of domesticating turkeys was consistent across settlements or if it was an isolated practice.
"It might be that not everybody was practicing this, but some people were for sure," she said.