Researchers Dig Into the Juicy History of Taming the Turkey

Archaeologists talk turkey in two recent studies

turkey bones and shells
Turkey eggshells and bones from an offering 1,500 years ago in Oaxaca, Mexico. Linda Nicholas, The Field Museum

With a certain turkey-centric holiday on the horizon, the iconic birds are enjoying their annual turn in the spotlight. But cooking shows and presidential pardons aren’t the only places that turkeys are making headlines in the days leading up to Thanksgiving—they’re also gobbling up the archaeology world. This week, two new studies dig into the origins of their domestication.

Though turkey was on the menu at the first Thanksgiving, the meal probably didn't revolve around the bird as it does today. And the foul were likely wild. William Bradford, the governor of the Plymouth colonies, wrote in his journals about hunting the "great store of wild turkeys" during the fall of 1621 before the first big feast.

So when were turkeys first domesticated?

Some of the earliest evidence for domestication is from long before the first Thanksgiving, discovered in the Four Corners region of the Colorado Plateau, Jen Viegas reported for Discovery News in 2010. DNA analysis of these ancient turkey remains suggests that Ancestral Puebloans domesticated the creatures nearly 2,000 years ago. But at the time, the birds were likely kept not for their meat, but their feathers, which are used in clothing as well as rituals and ceremonies, Viegas reports. But they weren't the only group in the turkey taming business. Archaeologists have also uncovered turkey bones dating to around 300 B.C. to 100 A.D., suggesting that Mayans living in modern-day Guatemala bred Mexican turkeys for ceremonial sacrifices.

But how widespread ancient domestication of turkeys was still remains unknown, and the two studies published this week in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports are helping to fill in the blanks.

Archaeologists from Florida State University recently came across a cache of large turkey bones at the the Fewkes Group Archaeological Site near Brentwood, Tennessee dating back to around 1200—1400 A.D. The size of these bones suggests that they came from adult males, which gave the researchers pause, Kristina Killgrove reports for Forbes. In wild turkey flocks, females greatly outnumber males. The newly discovered bones are also much larger than wild turkeys usually get, suggesting that these turkeys had been bred to be plumper.

A second study published this week, sheds further light on the history of the the massive turkeys that now grace many thanksgiving tables every year. This study, led by Field Museum archaeologist Gary Feinman, details a clutch of unhatched turkey eggs unearthed alongside both juvenile and adult turkey bones at a Zapotec site in modern-day Oaxaca. The presence of both juveniles and adults with the eggs suggests that the creatures were all raised and kept together.

"Our research tells us that turkeys had been domesticated by 400-500 AD," Feinman says in a statement. "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."

Next up on the plate for the researchers behind these latest studies is to conduct a DNA analysis of the bones and eggshell remains. By scanning these remains, scientists could potentially identify how closely related these turkeys were to the modern-day birds as well as what they were fed. If they were raised on a grain-based diet instead of wild plants and grasses, writes Killgrove, the finds could give archaeologists new insights into how turkeys were domesticated.

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