There is little doubt that Native Americans at a Utah site appropriately called Turkey Pen Ruins raised turkeys, but new research concludes that they rarely ate them, and instead raised the large birds for their coveted feathers.
The study involved extensive analysis of amino acid signatures resulting from diet that can be detected in human hair. The research, which has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, represents one of the first analyses of human hair from the American Southwest.
The findings indicate that Native Americans from the Ancestral Pueblo Tradition (also sometimes known as the Anasazi) heavily relied upon corn, showing that "about 80 percent of the calories and protein came from maize," co-author R.G. Matson from the University of British Columbia Department of Anthropology told Discovery News.
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Matson added that people up to at least 400 A.D. "likely boiled maize in limewater, making more available the essential amino acids." This "nixtamalized maize" is used today to make tortillas, but there is no evidence for tortilla making at the site. Instead, Matson said the hominy was likely "often eaten as a sort of stew, with chenopod leaves probably used as greens in the stew."
Co-author Karen Lupo of Southern Methodist University mentioned that the Ancestral Pueblo Native Americans did consume meat, based on the hair analysis as well as on prior studies of their feces and skeletons.
"We've found evidence that people were eating large animals, such as deer, mountain sheep and rabbits," she said.
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Lead author Catherine Cooper of the University of British Columbia said that her team also believes squash, pine nuts, rice grass and amaranth were regularly incorporated into the Ancestral Pueblo diet.
As for turkeys, the birds were central to an evolving technology applied to blanket making.
Co-author William Lipe of Washington State University explained that before the Native Americans started to raise turkeys, they would make blankets by wrapping strips of rabbit skin - with fur attached - around cords.
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During what is known as the Basketmaker II period (late B.C. to early A.D.), "the people also began to make warm blankets by wrapping turkey feathers around cords made of yucca fiber, and then joining these 'fuzzy ropes' together to make a blanket," Lipe explained.
He continued, "Turkeys molt several times a year so it would not have been necessary to kill the turkeys to harvest their feathers. It would also not have been necessary to keep and feed large numbers of turkeys in order to supply the demand for feathers."
An intriguing clue as to how the Native Americans viewed turkeys is that there are several turkey burials at archaeological sites in the Four Corners area of the northern American Southwest. This suggests that turkeys "had a symbolic importance," he said, helping to explain why so little evidence of their consumption was found.
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The turkey feathers were also incorporated into robes, headdresses and in other decorations that might have held symbolic and/or spiritual importance.
Anthropologist Phil Geib of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln told Discovery News that, in addition to the other uses for turkey feathers, they were used in the "fletching of darts." This refers to the stabilization of arrows or darts with feathers or other materials.
However useful the turkeys were, he and the other scientists remain puzzled that the Native Americans did not seem to raise the turkeys for their meat, especially given that the people could have sometimes suffered from a protein deficiency.
Geib said that "we all know how good a well-roasted bird tastes! Having turkeys for feathers doesn't preclude eating them: kill, pluck and cook."