turkeys we eat today ultimately descended from breeds raised by
than 1,500 years before Christopher Columbus and his crew sailed
to the New World, Native Americans had already domesticated turkeys
twice: first in south-central Mexico at around 800 B.C. and again
in what is now the southwestern U.S. at about 200 B.C., according
to a new study.
two instances of domestication appear to have been separate, based
on DNA analysis of ancient turkey remains. However, the different
Native American groups could have been in contact with each other,
sharing turkey-raising tips.
turkeys today conjure up thoughts of bountiful roast meat meals
and deli sandwiches, Native Americans were not driven by their dinner
needs, according to the study, published in the latest Proceedings
of the National Academy of Sciences.
the domestic turkeys were initially raised for their feathers, which
were used in rituals and ceremonies, as well as to make feather
robes or blankets," lead author Camilla Speller told Discovery
News. "Only later, around 1100 A.D., did the domestic turkeys
become an important food source for the Ancestral Puebloans."
colleague, Dongya Yang, said the new study came together when two
groups joined forces. Their group was busy studying ancient turkey
bones, while another research team from Washington State University
was analyzing early turkey coprolites, i.e. fossilized dung from
scientists combined their efforts for the study, which involved
DNA analysis of 149 turkey bones and 29 coprolites from 38 different
said their investigations revealed that pre-Aztec people around
south-central Mexico first domesticated turkeys. The birds appear
to either have either been penned or "allowed to roam around
the village," according to Speller.
southwestern turkeys, on the other hand, "were raised by the
Ancestral Puebloans who lived on the Colorado Plateau, around the
Four Corners region of the southwest United States," Speller
Puebloans, also known as the Anasazi, appear to have not only raised
domestic turkeys, but also incorporated local wild turkeys into
their domestic stocks, according to Yang.
tests determined that the southwestern domestic turkey breed probably
is most closely related to the eastern and Rio Grande wild turkeys
that are still found in the U.S. today. It is possible, however,
that the original southwestern domestic breed has since become extinct.
seems that only the Aztec turkey breed survived into the present
day," Speller said. "It's fascinating to think that the
turkeys that we eat today were ultimately descended form the turkey
breeds raised by the Aztecs."
researchers weren't able to precisely identify these Aztec turkey
breeds, but they ruled out at least one early progenitor: the South
Mexican domestic turkey, which previously was thought to be a mother
of all modern domestic turkeys.
connection to today's domestic turkeys is a complicated one, because
when the Spanish arrived in the New World, they transported the
Aztec turkey breeds from Mexico to Europe, where they were a huge
the following two centuries, several varieties of turkey were developed
in Europe. And then in the 18th century, these European turkey breeds
were imported back to the United States, where they eventually became
the forerunners to the turkeys we eat today," Speller explained.
R.G. Matson of the University of British Columbia is an expert in
the archaeology of the southwestern United States.
told Discovery News that Speller and her team "have provided
convincing evidence that two turkey domestication events took place."
Matson, however, indicated that questions remain.
more wild, museum and archaeological samples need to be analyzed
to fill out the history of turkey domestication in the Southwest
and elsewhere," he said.