Pullman, WA While the popular notion of the American
Thanksgiving is less than 400 years old, the turkey has been part
of American lives for more than 2,000 years. But for much of that
time, the bird was more revered than eaten.
Washington State University archaeologists over the years 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 with decades
of experience in the area. And they were also important as
a food source, probably primarily at periodic feasts and ritual
Ritual and practical importance
In what is called the Basketmaker II era, which ran from 400 B.C.
to 500 A.D., ancient Pueblo people shifted from making blankets
of rabbit fur to using turkey feathers. One blanket could require
12,000 feathers, which could be taken as the birds molted.
The blankets helped ward off the high-altitude chill of Mesa
Verde, but the turkeys also must have had some symbolic importance,"
said Lipe. That continues all the way through to the present.
Turkey feathers are still ritually quite important among Pueblo
In the late 1100s, the Pueblo population boomed from what is
now Mesa Verde National Park over into nearby southeast Utah. Computer
models developed at WSU by anthropologists Tim Kohler and Kyle Bocinsky
suggest that deer, a major protein source, were getting hunted out
and replaced by turkeys as a source of meat.
Thanksgiving then, too
That's reflected in the decline of deer bones found in ancient middens,
or waste sites, and the rise in the number of turkey bones, said
At some of the larger sites it looks as if they were getting
the majority of their meat supply from turkeys, with deer and rabbits
being less important," he said.
Per-capita consumption appears to have averaged around three-fourths
to one and a half turkeys per year. That's not much, but in a village
of 500 people, it adds up.
This was an important bird as a food source as well as
symbolically important and valuable for making warming blankets
throughout this whole period," Lipe said. Turkeys were one
of the things they had to be thankful for."
Maize on the menus
The bird was no Butterball. In fact, said Lipe, historical and genetic
evidence indicates a different variety independently domesticated
in Mexico was taken by the Spanish to Europe. It was later
brought back to North America, where it became the basis for the
present-day turkey raising industry.
Lipe's research is looking at the cost to Pueblo people of raising
turkeys for meat. About three-fourths of the Pueblo diet was maize,
a type of corn, and raising a turkey required either diverting a
substantial amount of the crop to the bird or growing more. Lipe
calculates that raising one turkey per person each year could consume
roughly one-fourth of the maize harvest.
Washington State University
Professor of Anthropology
Converting maize to turkey meat would have added to the
risks of farming in a dry-farming area that had highly variable
rainfall patterns," Lipe said. Of course, in case of a crop
failure, the turkey flock could have been reduced, but probably
at the risk of increasing the risk of nutritional problems, especially
Relocation, less reliance on turkeys
Lipe is gathering data that indicates turkey consumption in the
Mesa Verde area peaked in the 1200s when the human population was
also peaking. Over the following century, the area underwent a massive
depopulation, emptying out the elaborate cliff dwellings with which
the people are so often identified.
There's good evidence that many of the people moved to the northern
Rio Grande area about 200 miles southeast to escape a variety of
stresses: the threat of warfare, recurring drought and new community
leadership and organization, Lipe said. It's possible, he said,
that yet another contributing factor was "the costs and risks of
raising large flocks of turkeys."
The people continued to raise turkeys in the Rio Grande area,
but archaeological evidence indicates they went back to relying
more on deer for meat.