Minnesota prides itself on serving as the nation’s turkey capital, the source of millions of birds that claim center stage on holiday tables and round out menus other times of the year too.
But here comes a fascinating study showing that the southwestern United States likely is the true home of North America’s tamed turkeys.
Turkeys are one of the few animals to have been domesticated in the New World, and it was long thought that the practice started in Mesoamerica (roughly southern Mexico). That’s where Spaniards found people using the birds for food in the early 16th Century and took the practice to Europe.
Now, a research team from Washington State University, Pullman, has shown that ancient Pueblo people in what has become the southwestern United States also domesticated the bird, probably separately from the Mexicans. The team, led by molecular anthropologist Brian Kemp, reported the findings in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
As interesting as the findings is the method used to get them. ScienceNow described the research this way: The scientists “tested the DNA from almost 200 bones and coprolites — the scientific name for very old, dry poop — from 38 archaeological sites in the American Southwest” dating from about 200 B.C. to the modern-day year 1800.
It turns out that “very old, dry poop” is a great DNA retainer.
“Smell these turkey droppings after they’ve been rehydrated, and it smells like you’re on a farm,” Kemp told ScienceNow.
The group also analyzed genetic samples from 10 Mesoamerican wild turkeys — now extinct, but preserved at the Smithsonian Institution — as well as 12 turkeys bought in U.S. grocery stores and almost 300 sequences of turkey DNA from a database called GenBank.
They homed in on 12 tightly linked genes.
One surprise is that the Puebloans apparently didn’t domesticate wild birds they found close to their southwestern home. Instead, the scientists found genetic similarities with modern-day wild turkeys found in the Midwest and along the Eastern seaboard.
“The researchers speculate that the Puebloans may have traveled east to catch these birds for their superior feathers,” ScienceNow said. “Turkey feather blankets replace rabbit fur blankets at about the same time turkey remains begin to appear in archaeological sites.”