Thanksgiving turkeys may have been tamed 1,500 years ago in Mexico

As Americans get ready to carve Thanksgiving turkeys, ponder this question: When was this famous fowl first tamed?

>> Nicholas ST FleurThe New York Times
Published : 26 Nov 2020, 08:21 AM
Updated : 26 Nov 2020, 08:21 AM

Archaeologists are not exactly sure, but recent research suggests that humans domesticated the big bird at least 1,500 years ago. The evidence comes from a clutch of intact eggs found in an old fortress in Oaxaca, Mexico. The researchers believe that the eggs, which date to between AD 400 and 500, were used by ancient people as some sort of ritualistic offering or sacrifice to their gods.

“Finding those eggs intact was mind-blowing,” said Gary Feinman, an archaeologist from the Field Museum in Chicago. “I’ve been excavating for decades and I have never ever found intact eggs like that in that quantity ever.”

Feinman and his colleagues uncovered several whole eggs buried together beneath two households in the Mitla Fortress in 2009. The fortress was once inhabited by the Zapotec people, a Mesoamerican civilization that was a neighbour of the Mayans, who lived there between AD 300 and 1,200. The Zapotecs were known to offer blood sacrifices, sometimes during important events such as burials, marriages and births, or for healing and agricultural rituals. Before constructing a new home, they would sometimes sacrifice a turkey hatchling, eat it and then bury its remains beneath the floors or within the walls.

“We were not surprised to find offerings per se, but we were surprised to find an offering of a cluster of turkey eggs,” said Feinman.

They found four offerings and a grave that had turkey eggs and bones. The biggest offering contained five whole eggs and about seven baby turkey skeletons beneath the floor. The researchers said that for the residents to have had both baby turkeys and turkey eggs within their houses, they must have been breeding and raising the birds nearby.

“It’s the earliest solid evidence of domesticated turkey in southern Mexico that we have to date,” Feinman said. He and his colleagues published their results in The Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports in a paper that was published online in July and will appear in print in an upcoming issue on turkey domestication.

Within the houses in Mitla Fortress, the team found several eggshells and more than 400 bones belonging to baby and adult turkeys. About a quarter of the bones were fashioned into tools or jewellery, but most appeared to have been discarded in trash pits. Turkeys weren’t the only animals that the Mitla Fortress residents domesticated. They also raised dogs to eat and sacrifice as well.

Heather A Lapham, an archaeologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and the lead author of the study analyzed the bones and showed they belonged to turkeys. She and the other researchers also confirmed with a scanning electron microscope that the eggs were from turkeys as well. The team is still awaiting DNA analysis of the bones to determine which of the three subspecies native to Mexico the remains belong to.

The findings are the earliest evidence of tamed turkeys in southern Mexico, moving back the oldest known signs that turkeys were being raised by people. The oldest examples in northern Mexico date to around AD 500, although most archaeological evidence in the region does not appear until AD 900, according to the authors. In the Southwest United States, some of the earliest domestic turkey evidence comes from sites that date to around AD 600.

The authors note that there was an older turkey bone found in a cave in southern Mexico that is dated to AD 180, but they argue that the evidence from that lone bone is not enough to suggest that it was domesticated instead of wild.

Joel L Cracraft, curator of the department of ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History, was not involved in the study and said the paper provided clear evidence of turkey domestication by the Zapotecs some 1,500 years ago.

“It seems that it pushes domestication back another 100 to 200 years,” he said.

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