Researchers talk turkey: Native Americans raised classic holiday bird

November 21, 2016
Credit: Yathin S Krishnappa

Hundreds of years before the first Thanksgiving, Native Americans were raising and feasting on America's classic holiday meal.

Florida State University Associate Professor of Anthropology Tanya Peres and graduate student Kelly Ledford write in a paper published today in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports that Native Americans as early as 1200 - 1400 A.D. were managing and raising turkeys.

This is the first time scientists have suggested that turkeys were potentially domesticated by early Native Americans in the southeastern United States.

"In the Americas, we have just a few domesticated animals," Peres said. "Researchers haven't really talked about the possibility of Native Americans domesticating or raising turkeys."

Researchers knew that turkeys had been a part of Native American life long before the first Thanksgiving in 1621.

Their feathers were used on arrows, in headdresses and clothing. The meat was used for food. Their bones were used for tools including scratchers used in ritual ceremonies. There are even representations of turkeys in artifacts from the time. An intricately engraved marine shell pendant found at a site in central Tennessee shows two turkeys facing each other.

But this new research indicates turkeys were more than just a casual part of life for Native Americans of that era. Peres and Ledford came across a few curiosities as they examined skeletons of turkeys from archaeological sites in Tennessee that led them to believe that Native Americans were actively managing these fowls.

For one, the groupings researchers worked on had more male turkeys than a typical flock.

In a typical flock of turkeys, there are usually more females, Peres said. But in the flock they examined, they found more remains of males. That would only happen if it were designed that way, she said.

"It appears Native Americans were favoring males for their bones for tools," Peres said. "And they certainly would have favored males for their feathers. They tend to be much brighter and more colorful than the female species. Female feathers tend to be a dull grey or brown to blend in to their surroundings since they have to sit on the nest and protect the chicks."

The other immediately noticeable trait that stood out to Peres and Ledford was that these ancient American gobblers were big boned—much larger than today's average wild turkey. That could be the result of them being purposefully cared for or fed diets of corn.

"The skeletons of the archaeological turkeys we examined were quite robust in comparison to the skeletons of our modern comparatives," Ledford said. "The domestication process typically results in an overall increase in the size of the animal so we knew this was a research avenue we needed to explore."

Peres and Ledford are working with colleagues at Washington State University to perform a DNA sequencing of these turkeys and also conduct experiments to see what the turkeys were eating. If they were being fed corn, a chemical signature should appear in the remains.

Ledford is also collecting data from additional sites across the southeastern United States to see if this pattern of managing 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," Peres said.

Explore further: What is a heritage turkey?

Related Stories

What is a heritage turkey?

November 20, 2014

Over 45 million turkeys are eaten by Americans each Thanksgiving, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Hunters provide some—last autumn, about 24,000 wild turkeys were harvested in Pennsylvania. Vegetarians ...

Probing Question: What is a heritage turkey?

November 19, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- Over 45 million turkeys are eaten by Americans each Thanksgiving, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Hunters provide some -- last autumn, about 24,000 wild turkeys were harvested in Pennsylvania. ...

Wild turkey damage to crops and wildlife mostly exaggerated

June 5, 2013

As populations of wild turkeys have increased, the number of complaints about crop damage has also increased. However, a literature review which will be published in the June 2013 issue of Journal of Integrated Pest Management, ...

Turkey: things you have to know before Thanksgiving

November 10, 2005

It's just about time for Thanksgiving. And while many of us love to sit down to a wonderful turkey dinner with our family and friends, few give much thought to where that turkey comes from.

Recommended for you

The oldest plesiosaur was a strong swimmer

December 14, 2017

Plesiosaurs were especially effective swimmers. These long extinct "paddle saurians" propelled themselves through the oceans by employing "underwater flight"—similar to sea turtles and penguins. Paleontologist from the ...

Averaging the wisdom of crowds

December 12, 2017

The best decisions are made on the basis of the average of various estimates, as confirmed by the research of Dennie van Dolder and Martijn van den Assem, scientists at VU Amsterdam. Using data from Holland Casino promotional ...

6 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

kevinrobertmccoy
not rated yet Nov 21, 2016
Mayas did it 1000 years before.
antigoracle
3 / 5 (2) Nov 22, 2016
Hmm... wonder what the Native Americans got to be thankful for?
TheGhostofOtto1923
2.3 / 5 (3) Nov 22, 2016
So turkeys were consistently baited with corn. Jared diamond says that slash and burn created fields for grazing buffalo. Not exactly penned and bred.
Hmm... wonder what the Native Americans got to be thankful for?
You mean like the huron were thankful that the Iroquois slaughtered them? Anybody discuss how tribal warfare was just as rampant in pre-Columbian west as anywhere else?
antigoracle
3.7 / 5 (3) Nov 22, 2016
So turkeys were consistently baited with corn. Jared diamond says that slash and burn created fields for grazing buffalo. Not exactly penned and bred.
Hmm... wonder what the Native Americans got to be thankful for?
You mean like the huron were thankful that the Iroquois slaughtered them? Anybody discuss how tribal warfare was just as rampant in pre-Columbian west as anywhere else?

"Thankfully" they still left many for the European genocide.
Captain Stumpy
3.7 / 5 (3) Nov 22, 2016
"Thankfully" they still left many for the European genocide.
sorry but... that is actually freakin hilarious

consider the following:

http://s1027.phot...&o=0

TheGhostofOtto1923
3.7 / 5 (3) Nov 22, 2016
"Thankfully" they still left many for the European genocide
You mean the few germanic refugees who were left after the huns drove them west out of central asia? You mean the few remnants of the kathar empire who fled the mongol butchers? You mean the few euros who were left after the romans and then the vikings slaughtered them en masse? You mean the few euros who were left after monks spread plague throughout their cities, towns, and villages after mongols delivered it to sevastopol? You mean the few euros who were left after protestants and catholics killed 1/3 the population of germany during the 30 years war?

And who did the clovis people kill off when they got here?

Everybody was killing everybody back then and none of it has anything to do with us. You can keep your 70s hippie guilt trip.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.