The Southeastern U.S. Ancient Turkey Project

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology 2016, Day 16

Tanya M. Peres and Kelly L. Ledford
Florida State University 

The eastern wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris) is well-known as a food and raw material resource for Pre-Columbian Native Americans. During the multi-year analysis of the animal remains excavated from the Fewkes site in Williamson County it became increasingly noticeable that some of the turkey remains from that Mississippian period mound and village were quite large compared to our modern domesticated specimens. This stood out as being unusual to us because typically domesticated animals are larger in body size than their wild counterparts. Here we were looking at 800-year old wild turkey bones that seemed to be a lot bigger than modern domesticated turkeys – including Thanksgiving turkeys donated by students to our comparative collection!

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Aerial view of the Fewkes Mounds site, Williamson County.

We wanted to know if what we thought was “robust” actually was. So, we conducted a pilot study that involved taking standard measurements of all of the archaeological turkey bones we had in the collection and comparing those measurements to both modern domestic and wild turkey populations, male and female. It turns out that based on these metric data we can determine some of the turkey bones were from male turkeys and fewer from females. These data proved to be statistically significant. (Authors’ note: these data will be available in published form in our forthcoming article “Archaeological Correlates of Population Management of the Eastern Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris) with a Case Study from the American South,” in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports).

Traditionally, turkeys found at archaeological sites in the Southeast are thought to be the remains of meals served and eaten long ago, with the birds having been killed in the wild by ancient hunters. We agree that many of these turkey bones are probably refuse left from ancient meals. However, based on our data and studies from other parts of the Americas, we suspect that the people at Fewkes (and other late prehistoric sites in the Southeastern US) had a relationship with turkeys that was more complex than we previously thought. It is highly likely that people were managing wild turkey populations, possibly to the point these turkeys were domesticated, or at least on the brink of it.

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Drawing of Mississippian period ceramic vessel from Moundville, Alabama (from Steponaitis and Knight 2004)

The artifactual evidence from the late prehistoric Southeastern US suggests that in some cases, turkeys were part of the larger world-view and were not seen as mere food items. This is notable because out of all of the birds that lived in and migrated through the Southeast, only four are depicted on Native American with relative regularity, the turkey being one of them. A total of thirteen marine shell gorgets from three sites in East Tennessee are known that depict turkey cocks, while an effigy bowl from the Moundville site in Alabama is interpreted as depicting a turkey with snake-like attributes (Steponaitis and Knight 2004).

In her book Cherokee Folk Zoology : The Animal World of a Native American People, 1700-1838, Arlene Fradkin (1988) notes that the Cherokee sought out turkey feathers, especially those of adult males, for their iridescent bold colors. The feathers were used to make women’s short gowns, mantles, blankets, and even hair ornaments; they were also attached to the base of arrows (Fradkin 1988:269-270, Table B-1). Textiles recovered at the archaeological site of Spiro in Oklahoma were crafted from yarn spun from the down of numerous types of animals, including turkeys (Power 2004:137). Other ethnographic and ethnohistoric sources identify turkey bones as raw material for tools and jewelry. One ethnohistoric record from the Southeast notes that hundreds of turkeys were paid as tribute while in another account, turkey poults were taken home to be raised by humans. In the mid-1970s at the Mississippian period (AD 1000-1350) site of Mound Bottom (40CH8), in Middle Tennessee yielded an apparently roofless structure rectangular post structure immediately adjacent to a house, which was preliminarily interpreted as a turkey pen (TDOA n.d.). Further analysis of this assemblage and additional fieldwork at Mound Bottom may reveal additional architectural evidence for turkey population management.

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Hixon Style marine shell gorget with turkey cock motif, ca. AD 1200-1350 , East Tennessee.

While we can tease out the cultural importance of turkeys in the lives of Pre-Columbian Native Americans in the Southeastern US via the ethnographic and ethnohistoric chronicles and through objects made and used by Native Americans, it is the study of the bird bones themselves that will ultimately allow us to understand the interactions between humans and turkeys. Moving forward, there are a few avenues of research that we plan to pursue. The first is to crowdsource information on ancient turkeys from other sites around the Southeastern US through an online database. This will expand our dataset and make it accessible to other researchers. We are also interested in the chemical make-up of the turkey bones to determine what they were eating (i.e., wild locally available foods vs. foods found in Native American gardens). In addition, DNA analysis of the ancient turkeys in our study area is already underway, and will allow us to unequivocally determine the sex of the specimens we were unable to measure or that we could not confidently identify. Overall, through all of these avenues we hope to successfully demonstrate the complexity of human-animal relationships in prehistoric Tennessee and in the Southeast.

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