Native Americans Domesticated Turkeys Hundreds of Years Before Thanksgiving

Native Americans in Eastern North America had domesticated the holiday birds hundreds of years before the first Thanksgiving.

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Nov 21 2016, 1:00pm

Image: MontagZen/Wikimedia Commons

The first Thanksgiving feast, enshrined in American culture and folklore, was really just a run of the mill harvest celebration at the time, but because it was the pilgrims' first successful harvest in North America (all thanks to the Wampanoag Indians who helped them out), it was given more significance. The Wampanoag peoples and pilgrims hunted and feasted on venison, fish, and fowl, including turkey. The turkey later became synonymous with the holiday because it is big enough to feed a number of people and is native to the North American continent.

But just as the oft told story of the first Thanksgiving is not quite how things went down over those three days in 1621, it appears the story of Thanksgiving turkey is also not entirely true. William Bradford, Governor of Plymouth, wrote in his journals of the "great store of wild turkeys" that the colonists had hunted. And while it's probably true the pilgrims hunted turkeys, a new study published today in Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, reveals that Native Americans on the Eastern coast had been raising turkeys for hundreds of years before that first Thanksgiving—something not even considered by scientists until now. It's possible the Wampanoag brought their own domesticated turkeys to the feast.

Anthropologists Tanya Peres and Kelly Ledford of Florida State University inspected turkey bones that they found in archaeological sites in Tennessee and found a couple of different clues indicating that they were not from wild turkeys, but domesticated ones. They were dated to 1200 - 1400 A.D.

An inordinate number of males to females was one indication of possible domestication. Peres and Ledford note that typical wild flocks have more females than males. So the only way this could slip would be if it were done intentionally.

The authors surmised that male turkey bones were probably favored for tools. "And they certainly would have favored males for their feathers. They tend to be much brighter and more colorful than the female species," said Peres in a public statement.

The other eyebrow-raising clue they came across was the sheer size of the bones. The turkey skeletons they were coming across were more robust than normal wild gobblers. This could be because they were being fed grains like corn regularly by humans.

Both Peres and Ledford are next working on sequencing the DNA of these turkey skeletons to determine if they did indeed eat corn or something like it. If they did, a chemical signature should show up.

Scientists have known that turkeys were a part of many Native American cultures long before 1621—their feathers were affixed to arrows and adorned headdresses and clothing, and their meat was eaten for food—but as Peres explained "In the Americas, we have just a few domesticated animals," and as such researchers, until now, haven't ever considered the possibility of Native Americans domesticating turkeys.