Native American Plant Domestication Paved Way for Turkeys

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Today at Discovery News you can find out how Native Americans domesticated turkeys, not just once, but twice, well over 1,500 years before Christopher Columbus and other Europeans set foot on American soil.

Native Americans were hardly starved for food. They had long before gotten their farming act together.

They instead raised turkeys for their feathers, which were "used in rituals and ceremonies, as well as to make feather robes or blankets," according to Simon Fraser University's Camilla Speller, who led the recent research project on North American turkey domestication. Her team's paper is in the latest Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

(Image: This photo, taken by John Grabill in 1891, shows a man named "Little," who was an Oglala band leader. In this studio portrait, Little is wearing a turkey feather headdress and is holding various weapons. Credit: Library of Congress)

Native American domestication of plants was directly tied to the later raising of turkeys.

"The domestication of squash and corn happened between 10,000-8,000 years ago, far before the domestication of turkeys," Speller told Discovery News.

"The cultivation of corn and squash was probably an important factor in turkey domestication, since turkeys appear to have been raised on corn diets," she added. "In other studies, corn pollen has been found in turkey coprolites—fossilized poop—and isotope analysis of some ancient domestic turkey bones has showed that corn was probably the most important food in their diet."

Based on archaeological finds, Speller believes the turkeys were either kept in pens, similar to how small farming operations raise them today, or that the turkeys "were allowed to roam around the village."

Pre-Aztec people near today's Mexico City and the Ancestral Puebloans, also known as the Anasazi, were the first to domesticate turkeys, according to the new study. It was only at around 1100 A.D. that the big birds became an important food source for the Native Americans.

Within the American Southwest, dramatic declines were seen in the Native Americans' ability to raise turkeys as the centuries went on. This was due to "the effects of disease and conflict associated with Spanish Colonialism after 1539, and the subsequent introduction of European domesticates, such as sheep and chicken," according to Speller and her team.

Some 100 years later, William Bradford, English leader of the Separatist settlers of Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts, wrote that he and his fellow colony members enjoyed a feast that included turkey. This meal, described below in Bradford's original 17th century spelling, documents what's believed to be the first Thanksgiving supper.

(Photograph of a painting signed Percy Moran, showing Myles Standish, William Bradford, William Brewster and John Carver signing the Mayflower Compact in a cabin. Credit: Library of Congress.)

"They begane now to gather in ye small harvest they had, and to fitte up their houses and

dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health & strenght, and had all

things in good plenty; fFor as some were thus imployed in affairs abroad, others were

excersised in fishing, aboute codd, & bass, & other fish, of which yey tooke good

store, of which every family had their portion. All ye somer ther was no want.  And

now begane to come in store of foule, as winter approached, of which this place did abound

when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees).  And besids water foule,

ther was great store of wild Turkies, of which they tooke many, besids venison, &c.

Besids, they had about a peck a meale a weeke to a person, or now since harvest, Indean

corn to yt proportion.  Which made many afterwards write so largly of their plenty

hear to their freinds in England, which were not fained,  but true reports."