Research delves into role of turkeys to Ancestral Pueblo peoples

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Recent research by Cyler Conrad, adjunct assistant professor at The University of New Mexico, examines turkeys' importance to the Ancestral Pueblo and how they have managed them for over 1,600 years. The area's ancient pueblos are evidence of turkeys and the various ways they were enclosed.

In "Contextualizing Ancestral Pueblo Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo spp.) Management," Conrad reviewed the archeological record to focus on three main questions: How turkey pens are identified, if turkey pen construction or evidence for captivity shifts through time, and how the record of turkey penning informs us regarding the long-term human management of these birds and global perspectives on human-bird/human-animal management.

The research includes a review of archeological evidence regarding turkey management by Ancestral Pueblo communities throughout the American Southwest, Mexico Northwest and other areas. By management, I mean keeping turkeys inside pens or other enclosed spaces. Conrad explained that he discovered through reading ethnographic and ethnohistoric descriptions as well as archeological site reports, and other publications focusing on turkey pen contexts, that Ancestral Pueblo people had a complex relationship to these birds.

Some turkeys were kept in rooms within villages. Sometimes these rooms were used as pens, and other times they were reused. Evidence suggests that they were kept in or near Room 28 at Pueblo Bonito at Chaco Canyon. Patricia Crown, UNM's anthropologist, discovered cylindrical jars in which the animals consumed chocolate drinks. This is the first evidence of chocolate consumption north of the US-Mexico border.

"It seems that turkeys were kept within a nearby room except during the last period of occupation in Room 28, when it could have served as a pen." Conrad made this interesting observation.

Turkeys were allowed to roam free, but were tied to turkey tethers and kept in small cages occasionally. An adaptive strategy that allowed for flexibility in managing turkeys for different purposes over more than 1,600 years in Southwest and northwest Mexico was evident.

Conrad speculates about why turkeys are kept. To feather? To eat? To increase the flock size? For egg production? Or for many other reasons that archeologists studying the past can't explain. The flexibility in turkey confinement was deliberate, I can confirm that.

Turkeys were likely used in many more ways than we now recognize.

We know that feathers, eggs and bones were used for many purposes. These included the creation of blankets and paints, as well as tools, musical instruments, food and art.

Conrad observed that the indigenous peoples of this area had strong and meaningful relationships with many birds, including macaws and eagles. Spanish contact later introduced chickens.

"Birds have a special place within Pueblo society. We see this record through the archeological identifications of bird bones, feathers imagery on ceramics, rock art, and many other archaeological activities. He said that Turkeys are just one of many birds that merit careful attention as we try to study human-bird interactions over time.

Conrad reviewed the records of past excavations to learn more about turkeys, and how they played a role in the lives and times of Ancestral Pueblos.

Turkey pens came in many forms and were constructed in Ancestral Pueblo settings. It was often difficult to identify them. There is a way to identify where the birds are kept.

Conrad stated that one of the best ways to identify a turkey pen in these locations is by looking for turkey droppings or thick mats of turkeydung.

The UNM Center for Stable Isotopes has helped researchers discover what turkeys ate. This center uses state-of the-art analytical instrumentation to measure certain elements, such as carbon, nitrogen and oxygen. It is not a new concept to allow poultry to roam freely.

Based on botanical evidence, we know what turkeys ate. This includes pollen and rare preserved foods that were found in desiccated or mummified turkeys. These records all indicate that turkeys ate domesticated maize. There are many fascinating examples that challenge this record, including evidence from Tijeras Pueblo, which was identified by Emily Lena Jones (UNM anthropologist). He explained that those turkeys appear to be eating a more natural or free-range diet.

These ancient turkeys are not so far from our modern wildlife.

The Ancestral Pueblo domesticated Turkey DNA survives in some wild Merriam turkey populations in the Southwest. You can hunt turkeys in New Mexico or just experience the turkeys in their natural environment. There is likely to be a connection between what we see as wild turkeys today and the ancestors of Pueblo peoples who managed them. This research is important because of the unique conditions under which Ancestral Pueblo people managed these birds.

Continue reading Ancient blanket made from 11,500 turkey feathers

More information: Cyler Conrad, Contextualizing Ancestral Pueblo Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo spp.) Management, Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory (2021). Cyler Conrad, Contextualizing Ancestral Pueblo Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo spp.) Management, (2021). DOI: 10.1007/s10816-021-09531-9