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Nature Notebook – Native Americans and Domestic Turkeys

Our ubiquitous symbol of Thanksgiving, the turkey, was an integral part of Native American life long before that storied feast. DNA studies showed that Indians in south-central Mexico at around 800 B.C. and in what is now the southwestern U.S. at about 200 B.C. kept flocks of turkeys around their villages. However, they weren’t eating them; they were collecting the feathers.

The natives of these regions constructed blankets by wrapping feathers around cords then joining the “fuzzy cords” together. The colorful male feathers were also favored by many tribes for creating headdresses, clothing, and arrows. Turkeys molt three times a year so a small flock could provide a steady supply of feathers. So they were worth more alive than dead.

Anthropologists believe that the purpose for keeping turkeys shifted around 1100 A.D. from feather cultivation to food cultivation. The skeletons of the “managed” turkeys were more robust than their wild relatives indicating that they had more to eat. Also, there were many more males than in a natural flock which the scientists believe was the result of purposeful design.

Excavations of village settlements have revealed pen-like structures adjacent to dwellings. The scientists believe that some groups utilized these to contain their flocks while others let them roam free throughout the village.