Researchers studied the remains of 55 turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo), dating from between 300BC to 1500CE in various parts of pre-Columbian Meso-America. They discovered that turkeys weren’t just a prized food source, but was also culturally significant for sacrifices and ritual practices.
Interestingly, the gradual intensification of turkey farming does not directly correlate to an increase in human population size, a link you would expect to see if turkeys were reared simply as a source of nutrition.
Lead author, Dr Aurélie Manin, said: “Turkey bones are rarely found in domestic refuse in Mesoamerica and most of the turkeys we studied had not been eaten – some were found buried in temples and human graves, perhaps as companions for the afterlife. This fits with what we know about the iconography of the period, where we see turkeys depicted as gods and appearing as symbols in the calendar.
“The archaeological evidence suggests that meat from deer and rabbit was a more popular meal choice for people in pre-Columbian societies. Turkeys are likely to have also been kept for their increasingly important symbolic and cultural role”.
Some of the remains the researchers analysed were from a cousin of the common turkey – the brightly plumed Ocellated turkey (Meleagris ocellata). The diets of these more ornate birds remained largely composed of wild plants and insects, suggesting that they were left to roam free and never really domesticated.
By analysing the DNA of the birds, the researches were also able to confirm that modern European turkeys descend from Mexican ancestors.
Manin et al. Diversity of management strategies in Mesoamerican turkeys: archaeological, isotopic and genetic evidence in Royal Society Open Science - 2018