Mysteries of prehistoric turkey domestication

Submitted by Sammy Smith (

Figure 4 from the Speller et al. article in PNAS.

Among the world’s major regions, ancient North America is not known for having many domesticated animals. One exception, Camilla F. Speller and her colleagues note in a free article in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America titled “Ancient Mitochondrial DNA Analysis Reveals Complexity of Indigenous North American Turkey Domestication,” is the wild turkey, or Meleagris gallopavo (with several subspecies defined based on plumage & geographic range, and confined—at least prehistorically—to several regions in North America and south to what is now southern Mexico)*. They write in their conclusion:

Domestication is a complex process, with human–animal interactions that vary considerably in terms of their intensity and their degree of human intervention…. The ancient DNA and archaeological evidence collected in this study reveals a wide range of past human–animal interactions within the Southwest United States, ranging from the hunting and/or capture of local wild turkeys, to the intensive husbandry and breeding of an imported domestic turkey lineage. Moreover, the DNA data indicate this Southwest domestic turkey lineage (H1) was maintained and propagated for well over a millennium, despite significant shifts in the geographic distribution and settlement patterns of Southwestern farming populations. This long history of turkey use undoubtedly reflects the economic and symbolic importance of domestic turkey for the Ancestral Puebloans, and other precontact Southwestern cultures.

This in-depth study presents conclusive evidence for the domestication of an indigenous North American animal. Moreover, as one of the few indigenous domesticates, the turkey represents an important case study through which to examine New World animal domestication in general. Previous DNA studies have exposed multiple domestications of Old World animals such as cattle, pig, sheep…, and this study supports a similar multicenter model for the New World. The DNA data point to at least two occurrences of turkey domestication in precontact America, one involving the South Mexican wild turkey, likely in south-central Mexico, and a second involving Rio Grande/Eastern wild turkey populations, with a subsequent introduction of domesticated stocks into the Southwest proper. In addition to significantly redirecting future research into North American domestication centers, this extensive study demonstrates the complexity and sophistication of ancient husbandry and breeding practices for one of the New World’s few domesticated animals.

Turkey bones have been identified from archaeological remains across the Southeast, including sites in Georgia. Isn’t it interesting to ponder how the Eastern wild turkey spread so far in prehistoric times, once domesticated? Evidence of penning is rare, but archaeologists keep their eye out for it. How would we identify if people were keeping turkeys penned near their residences?

This paragraph from the Speller et al. article is informative:

Our best evidence that “wild” birds were being kept at habitation sites comes from the H2 coprolites found at Turkey Pen Ruins in Utah, indicating that H2 birds were present and presumably confined at the site. These coprolites occurred in a thick dry midden dating almost entirely to the Basketmaker II period (ca. 200 BC–AD 450) with one H2 specimen appearing in the earliest dated stratum…. Thus, the capture and provisioning of local wild birds may have been synchronous with the introduction of the domestic birds into the region. A better understanding of the nature, timing, and extent of early wild turkey exploitation will require genetic analysis of securely dated bones and/or coprolites from additional Early Agricultural sites. Additionally, investigating whether wild H2 birds were being confined and provisioned in conjunction with domestic birds must be addressed through detailed analyses of archaeological contexts, isotopic data from bones, and palynological and macrofloral evidence from coprolites.

The terms H1 and H2 refer to haplogroups, or creatures sharing a common ancestor, identified through their genetic code (genotypes). These two haplogroups are identified by these researchers as indicating two different lineages (varieties) of domesticated turkeys.

Across much of the Southwest, turkey does not seem to have been in heavy rotation in the diet until the AD 1100s, although it appears in the archaeological record much earlier.

Do you know how archaeologists can tell if people were eating turkeys? And if those turkeys were wild or domesticated? And, perhaps more important, why does it matter which they were?

* A second turkey species, Meleagris ocellata, is native to the Yucatan Peninsula in southeastern modern Mexico.