Stanley J Olsen. Cambridge World History of Food. Editor: Kenneth F Kiple & Kriemhild Conee Ornelas. Volume 1. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

The process of capture, taming, and eventual domestication of most animals is a difficult and lengthy process, often consisting of a trial-and-error approach. One notable exception was the domestication of the North American wild turkey, Meleagris gallopavo. The U.S. National Park Service archaeologist Jean Pinkley, while stationed at Mesa Verde National Park, put forth a logical scenario outlining the unique process of taming and domesticating the prehistoric pueblo turkeys of that area. Pinkley (1965) has pointed out that some domesticated animals apparently first exploited humans before becoming another of their agricultural conquests. The turkey is such an example.

The pueblo turkeys had become extinct in the Mesa Verde area by historic times, and the Park Service reintroduced breeding stock in 1944 (Pinkley 1965). This permitted observation of the wild turkeys and their relationship with the employees of the park. The turkeys were timid at first, but as they learned where food could be found—in this case, feeding stations that the government set out for small birds—they took over these sources. They also moved into warm roosting places available in the park’s residential areas, and despite efforts to chase them away by tossing Fourth of July cherry bombs and firing guns into the air, the birds continued to congregate in and around park dwellings.

There is little reason to believe that prehistoric humans in Mesa Verde were not tormented by turkeys in much the same manner, and sooner or later, when it dawned on them that the birds could not be driven off or frightened away, the Pueblo Indians would out of despair have begun to corral them to protect crops and foodstores. At this point, recognition of the turkey as a source of food and materials for bone tools would presumably have been a logical next step.

That the turkeys were utilized over a wide area is evidenced by their numerous bones recovered from many archaeological excavations throughout the southwestern United States. All growth and age stages of the turkey—from eggs and poults on through old adults—are represented in these findings. Also of considerable interest are the pens that were constructed long ago in the pueblo region to keep the birds from straying from areas of confinement.

A number of turkey pens have been found associated with early pueblos. I recall walking down the sandy bottom of White Canyon in Utah in 1950 during the uranium boom and spotting a small two-room ruin high on the canyon wall overhead. After a tedious but not particularly dangerous climb, I reached the ledge to find the ruin virtually undisturbed. There were black-on-white bowl fragments lying about, along with stone grinding tools. On one end of the overhanging rock, where it joined with the smooth main cliff face, was a wedge-shaped turkey pen. It was constructed of cottonwood twigs, about the size of a finger in diameter, held together by plant fibers. The gate had hinges made of leather thongs and had been secured with a tied leather loop. On the floor of the small pen was a thick layer of turkey droppings. As I untied the gate and heard the squeak of the leather thongs as it opened, I thought about the last person who had secured the empty cage, perhaps intending to return with more wild birds.

The determination of whether a turkey was domestic or wild on the basis of skeletal evidence alone is—unlike with many other domesticates—nearly impossible, and when such determinations are advanced they are “shaky” at best. But poultry experts at the Cooperative Extension Service at Clemson University in York, South Carolina, have arrived at an interesting conclusion regarding the color of turkey feathers that may help separate domestic from wild birds.

Color change in feathers is brought about, in part, by the presence of lysine, a biologically important basic amino acid (C6H14 N2°2) and one of the building blocks of protein. In the case of turkeys, if lysine is not present in the diet in adequate amounts, their feathers lose some of their pigment. Turkeys generally obtain the needed amino acid from natural foods of whole protein, including insects, worms, and grubs. But many vegetable foods are low in lysine, and one of the poorest is corn. Because evidence indicates that corn was one of the major foods given to the Pueblo turkeys, and because confinement would have prevented the birds from foraging for other supplements, this diet may have contributed to the increase in white-tipped feathers that are found with domestic birds.

Two turkeys were and are present in the Americas. These are the ocellated turkey (Meleagris “Agriocharis” ocellata) of Central America and southern Mexico, and the turkey that is regarded as the Thanksgiving bird in the United States (M. gallopavo), which is found throughout much of North America.

The genus Meleagris and, perhaps, the species gallopavo are reported from the Pleistocene of North America. The birds are known from a Basket-maker site at Tseahaliso Cave, Canyon Del Muerto, Arizona, having an associated date of 3700 B.C. Turkeys were definitely domesticated by Pueblo I times (A.D. 750-900).

Most historians agree that Christopher Columbus and his men were probably the first Europeans to see the turkey. During the fourth voyage of Columbus in 1502, his party landed at present-day Honduras, where friendly natives brought them food that included native birds the Spaniards called gallinas de la tierra, or “land chickens.” Subsequent Spanish visitors to the Mexican mainland also reported the turkey, such as Hernando Cortés, who saw them in the markets of the City of Mexico in 1519.

The ocellated turkey was long familiar to the Maya, and its bones are rather common discoveries in Maya sites in Yucatan and Guatemala. Indeed, the Maya referred to their part of the world as the land of the turkey and the deer.Yet there is little evidence indicating that the ocellated turkey was ever domesticated. Rather, it was probably a captive and not easily induced to breed in captivity.

The first European country to receive the turkey from the New World was Spain; Pedro Alonso Ni±o took some birds to that country in the early 1500s. The birds were established on Spanish poultry farms by 1530, were in Rome by 1525, were in France by 1538, and then spread rapidly to other parts of the Old World.

Ironically, the travels of the turkey came full circle when English settlers in Virginia brought the bird back to its home continent in 1584. The first turkeys to be brought from Europe to Massachusetts arrived in 1629. But contemporary accounts indicate that the turkey did not achieve its prominent place in the Thanksgiving festival in New England until the late eighteenth century.

This is not, however, to imply that turkeys were scarce in North America. Spanish explorers in the present-day southwestern United States, particularly those with Francisco Vásquez de Coronado from 1540 to 1542, supplemented their food supply with local animals encountered both in the wild and in Indian villages. Indeed, they frequently mentioned foods they encountered in the pueblos of Cibola and Cibuique, and Antonio Castañeda, 1 in his record of the Coronado expedition, noted that at the fortified village of Acoma (atop a large mesa in present-day New Mexico), the villagers gave the Spaniards presents of turkeys.

Coronado himself wrote of seeing domesticated turkeys in the southwestern pueblos. The Indians informed him, however, that the turkeys were not used as food but instead for their feathers that went to make robes (Winship 1896). Coronado, who did not take this statement seriously, claimed that the birds were an excellent source of food. Yet he also wrote that the Hopi pueblos kept both eagles and turkeys for their feathers. Feather-string robes similar to those reported in New Mexico have also been recovered from pre-Columbian Indian burials at several sites in Arizona.

Reports such as this one help explain why for many years archaeologists believed that turkeys were not eaten by the early Basketmakers and Pueblo Indians. But this theory also developed because of a number of complete natural turkey mummies—some buried with offerings of corn—that had been found. This discovery was, however, before the thirteenth-century Mug House Ruin at Mesa Verde National Park was excavated (Rohn 1971) and over 1,074 turkey bones were recovered, representing from 183 to 815 individual birds (depending on the method of determining the minimum number of individuals).

Many bones at this site showed signs of butchering, and some were scorched or burned. In fact, turkeys appear to have been the most important source of meat for the Mug House occupants. The turkeys were housed mainly in the ruin’s “Room 46,” where numerous droppings found in most dry deposits, as well as remains of young birds or poults and some eggshell fragments, indicate that the birds were domesticated to a point at which they were reproducing. However, the limited number of eggshell fragments suggests that eggs were not an important food item (if, indeed, they were used for food at all). Grooved stones at the site may have been used as “anchors” to tether the birds and limit their wandering around the crowded pueblo (Rohn 1971).

Many of the turkey bones from Mug House, and other Pueblo sites, were made into awls, needles, and tubular beads. The bones selected to be “worked” were the humeri, femora, tarsometatarsi, and tibiotarsi. Even though turkey (and eagle) bones appear to be weaker in structure when compared with those of mammals, they are generally quite strong; thus, they could be worked and polished into implements.

A number of turkey humeri indicate that they were intentionally broken, or “captured,” and then allowed to grow back, leaving the birds unable to fly again. This method of “wing clipping” is also employed with macaws and is still used by bird collectors in Central America.

Depictions of turkeys are rather common in works of native art. The Hopi kivas at Awatovi Pueblo have identifiable turkeys on the walls. The Mimbres vessels of the Southwest have quite accurate portrayals of turkeys, as well as some other depictions with accurate turkey heads and beards but in combination with anatomical characteristics of reptiles and mammals, such as jackrabbit ears and deer limbs.

One of the more unusual artistic depictions of turkeys found in the southwestern United States is a rather large mural that was painted on the back wall of a cliff dwelling. The dwelling (Classic Pueblo, A.D. 1100-1300), in Arizona’s Navajo Tribal Park, is located some 60 to 70 feet above the floor of Little Canyon de Chelly. It is a site that is difficult to reach and, thus, was little known and virtually unvisited until the 1960s. The well-executed mural features three large turkeys roosting in a line.

Assemblages of turkey bones are preserved in many museum collections. Mug House Ruin, already mentioned, and Big Juniper House, also at Mesa Verde, have rather large collections of worked turkey bones. Seventeen bone awls representing the turkey, and one made from a golden eagle, were identified at Big Juniper House.

Worked turkey bones were also encountered in the following sites in prehistoric Arizona: Poncho House (4), Betatakin Pueblo (1), Kiet Siel Pueblo (77),Turkey Cave (3), Awatovi (1), and Wupaki Pueblo (1). Most of these turkey bones are from areas where, historically, the wild turkey is not known. Moreover, Lyndon Har-grave (1939), who did much of the identification of the bones, has pointed out that identifying single bones, particularly incomplete elements, can be less than accurate if turkeys, golden eagles, and sandhill cranes are all represented. Alden Miller (1932) has also reported on bird (including turkey) bones from archaeological sites in Arizona. These bones were from a dwelling site 35 miles north of Flagstaff. They were dated between A.D. 1000 and 1100, their age attested to by pottery types found with the turkey bones.

Clearly, the turkey was prized for much more than just meat, and regardless of the degree to which M. gallopavo was considered as a food source in the Southwest, the evidence indicates that it was among the most sought-after animals over a wide area and a considerable span of time.

It is difficult to obtain reliable information on why turkeys were not fully accepted in many areas of the world where they were introduced. A. W. Schorger, in his book The Wild Turkey; Its History and Domestication (1966), devoted 36 pages to a discussion of the travels of the North American turkey to England, Norway, Germany, India, Portugal, and Africa, and throughout much of the Western Hemisphere, including Peru and Colombia. Nonetheless, North America seems to be the region where turkeys are most accepted, although no reason has ever been offered for such popularity.

The dog, Canis familiaris, and the turkey, M. gallopavo, were the only domestic animals present in North America during pre-Columbian times. It is true that some workers credit the pre-Columbian Maya with domesticating the Muscovy duck, although my studies of the Maya fauna do not substantiate this hypothesis. In the Caribbean, Columbus observed the Carib Indians with penned (domesticated or merely captive?) muscovies. Obviously we still have much to learn about domesticated fowl in the early Americas.