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Native Americans raised wild turkeys way before our Thanksgiving

Florida State University Associate Professor of Anthropology Tanya Peres and graduate student Kelly Ledford published a paper in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports on Monday that suggests that Native Americans in the southeastern U.S. were cultivating wild turkeys as early as 1200 – 1400 A.D.

“In the Americas, we have just a few domesticated animals,” Peres said, according to Fox News. “Researchers haven’t really talked about the possibility of Native Americans domesticating or raising turkeys.”

Turkeys running

Turkeys running
by Vicki’s Nature


Researchers have known for a long time that Native Americans were quite familiar with the wild turkey, Meleagris gallopavo, and that the bird has been a part of their lives for centuries. Its feathers were used on arrows and in headdresses and clothing.

The turkey’s flesh was used as food and its bones were used as tools in ritual ceremonies. Researchers have even found artifacts with turkeys engraved on them. A marine shell pendant was found at an archaeological site in Tennessee that had two intricately carved turkeys facing each other.

But did Native Americans actually practice animal husbandry? Did they purposely feed and tend flocks of wild turkeys? The new research suggests that it is exactly what these early peoples did.

Using demographic turkey data from the Mississippian Period Fewkes site in Tennessee, Peres and Ledford came across some curiosities as they were examining turkey bones from the period. One thing they noticed was that there were more male turkey bones than female.

This was an important find because a typical flock of wild turkeys has more females than males. But the groupings of bones that the team examined clearly showed there were more males, indicating the flock was purposely managed. “That would only happen if it were designed that way,” Peres 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 gray or brown to blend into their surroundings since they have to sit on the nest and protect the chicks.”

But here is the surprising thing the team discovered — the ancient wild turkeys were big-boned and much larger than their wild counterparts today. This could only mean the turkeys were selectively cultivated, perhaps being fed on a diet of corn.

flock of Eastern Wild Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris) in Leon County  Florida. The turkey o...

flock of Eastern Wild Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris) in Leon County, Florida. The turkey on the far right is a jake. One can tell this by the middle tail feather sticking up high than the rest of the feathers.
Tim Ross


“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 researchers at Washington State University to perform DNA sequencing on the ancient bones. If the turkeys were fed corn, there will be a chemical signature left. Ledford is expanding the search for wild turkey bones across other areas of the southeastern United States to see if the management of flocks was practiced across other settlements.

Was it an isolated practice? “It might be that not everybody was practicing this, but some people were for sure,” Peres said.
It should also be noted that the Eastern wild turkey is given the scientific name Meleagris gallopavo silvestris.

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We are deeply saddened to announce the passing of our dear friend Karen Graham, who served as Editor-at-Large at Digital Journal. She was 78 years old. Karen's view of what is happening in our world was colored by her love of history and how the past influences events taking place today. Her belief in humankind's part in the care of the planet and our environment has led her to focus on the need for action in dealing with climate change. It was said by Geoffrey C. Ward, "Journalism is merely history's first draft." Everyone who writes about what is happening today is indeed, writing a small part of our history.

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