Native Americans raising turkeys centuries before first Thanksgiving

In case you're wondering, this is not the turkey in Strasburg. Credit: wpbn / MGN
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By: WCTV Eyewitness News
November 22, 2016

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) -- Just in time for Turkey Day, FSU researchers believe that Native Americans were feasting on one of America's favorite holiday meals hundreds of years before the first Thanksgiving.

FSU's Tanya Peres and Kelly Ledford say that Native Americans as early as 1200-1400 AD were raising turkeys. They published some of their research in this week's Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

The university says it's the first time scientists have suggested that turkeys were domesticated by early Native Americans in the southeastern United States.

“In the Americas, we have just a few domesticated animals,” Peres said. “Researchers haven’t really talked about the possibility of Native Americans domesticating or raising turkeys.”

Turkeys were a part of Native American life long before the first Thanksgiving in 1621. Feathers were used on arrows, headdress and clothing. The meat was used for food and bones were used for tools.

There have even been representations of turkeys found on artifacts. A shell pendant found at a site in Tennessee depicts two turkeys facing one another.

Peres and Ledford say that according to their findings at archaeological sites, they believe Native Americans were actively managing turkeys. For instance, they found more remains of males than females, even though there are generally more females in a flock.

“It appears Native Americans were favoring males for their bones for tools,” Peres said. “And they certainly would have favored males for their feathers. They tend to be much brighter and more colorful than the female species. Female feathers tend to be a dull grey or brown to blend in to their surroundings since they have to sit on the nest and protect the chicks.”

Peres and Ledford also believe the turkeys were larger than today's average wild turkey because they were purposefully fed diets of corn.

“The skeletons of the archaeological turkeys we examined were quite robust in comparison to the skeletons of our modern comparatives,” Ledford said. “The domestication process typically results in an overall increase in the size of the animal so we knew this was a research avenue we needed to explore.”

Working with colleagues from Washington State University, the FSU researchers are trying to determine if a chemical signature of a corn-fed diet appear in the remains.

They're also collecting data from additional sites from across the southeastern United States to see if there is a consistent pattern in the way turkeys were managed by Native Americans.

“It might be that not everybody was practicing this, but some people were for sure,” Peres said.