Domesticated turkeys are an American tradition that goes back much further than any Plymouth Thanksgiving. Dating back more than 2,000 years, the handsome ground birds were raised as a staple of Indigenous societies on this continent, with early domesticated turkey remains appearing in archeological sites from Mesoamerica to the desert Southwest of today’s United States and possibly in the Southeast as well. Those remnants suggest that the turkey was valued enough to be tamed from the wild not just once, but on at least two separate occasions.
There are two species of turkey in the wild. The more wide-ranging of them, Meleagris gallopavo, or simply Wild Turkey, was found throughout much of the United States and down through Mexico, making the large ground-nesting species an important game bird for many tribes. But as early as 300 BCE, Mesoamerican peoples went further and began keeping them as domestic animals, says Cyler Norman, an archeologist at the University of New Mexico. The birds—which the Nahuatl-speaking peoples of Mexico called huexolotl—weren't maintained solely for their meat, but also for symbolic value and feathers.
Outside of Mexico, domesticated turkeys also have a long history in the southwestern United States. In the rich Pueblo settlements of Chaco Canyon—especially in the multistoried “great houses,” around which complex irrigation, road, and long-distance trade networks arose—the earliest remains date back to around 900 C.E. Chemical analysis shows the turkeys were fed entirely on corn diets, indicating they weren't wild birds. “We can safely infer that these turkeys were domesticated and managed,” Norman says. The evidence goes beyond biological remains. The turkeys' cultural importance also supports their domestication and value in the Southwest, Norman says: “Rock art, imagery on ceramics, and oral traditions are critical for understanding human management of turkeys through time.”
At one time, archeologists believed that the domesticated birds in this region had simply been introduced from Mexico. But a raft of studies over the past few decades—including new archeological finds and DNA evidence—have revised this understanding. Today, researchers have wealth of modern evidence to suggest that Native peoples of the U.S. Southwest domesticated Wild Turkeys independently of their southern neighbors. In a 2010 study, ancient DNA from turkey remains showed distinctive lineages associated with independent domestication, as did an analysis of their skeletal traits.
The oral histories of the Pueblo people further support the turkey's importance, says Mary Weahkee, a former archeologist for Museum of New Mexico and a member of the Santa Clara Pueblo and the Comanche Nation. For centuries, the birds' feathers also played a role in ceremony and were used to make blankets and tools—traditions that continue among Southwestern tribes today. The turkeys' wing and tail feathers make excellent arrow fletching, and their fluffy down creates durable, warm blankets, Weahkee says. (It can take as many as 11,500 individual feathers to make a blanket.) While hunting wild birds for feathers can be a headache, Weahkee says, turkeys release their feathers readily when grabbed, which makes them “a good herd animal.” Keep enough domestic turkey, and all your feather needs can be easily met.
Yet turkeys aren’t just kept for practical reasons: The bird has long played a vital spiritual role in Pueblo culture, with its feathers often used for prayers and ceremonial regalia, Weahkee says. Particularly prized, she says, are the white or thunderhead-black feathers, which represent clouds and their attendant, life-giving rains. (Before contact with Europeans, Mesoamericans also had a rich spiritual tradition around the bird.)
Centuries ago, the birds were so central to Chaco society that archeological studies of cooking hearths show very few turkey bones, Weahkee notes. Only during the climate-driven collapse of the Chaco civilization in the 14th century did people eat the sacred birds more widely. The shift was likely a sign of desperation: People would “rather eat their dogs than their turkey,” Weahkee says.
Not everyone shared that cultural reticence. In 1519, amid the conquest of Mexico, conquistadores transported domestic turkeys back to Europe, where the birds became a popular food. In ensuing years, the birds traded hands around the Mediterranean, with one route originating in Turkey landing the bird its English language common name. When British colonists arrived in Massachusetts in 1620, among the supplies they brought with them were European lineages of the domestic turkey. Some of those birds—as well as their wild cousins—may have famously ended up on the menu at the colonists’ 1621 autumn feast. Essentially, the domesticated turkeys that arrived on the eastern coast of America owed their origins pre-colonial societies in the Americas.
In the domesticated turkeys’ original homelands, Weahkee says, Spanish colonization shattered societies, including many of the traditional Pueblo villages. Domestic flocks there were turned loose, but the southwestern domesticated turkeys didn’t wholly vanish, she says. The birds' bloodlines still run linger in the subspecies of wild Rio Grande turkeys of the Southwest, whose feathers adorn blankets and regalia to this day.