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A tale of two turkeys

March 25, 2010

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Before you sit down for your Easter turkey dinner, consider where the bird came from. You may be surprised to learn that its domestic roots date back to the pre-Aztec world, some 2,000 years ago. Even more surprising is the discovery by archaeologists Camilla Speller and Dongya Yang of SFU’s ancient DNA laboratory and colleagues at Washington State University (WSU) that the fowl was domesticated twice in separate locations.

According to their research, published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, both the Mesoamericans of south-central Mexico and ancestors of the Pueblo Indians in the southwestern U.S. were raising domestic turkeys by 200 B.C.

The SFU researchers examined ancient turkey bones for the study while WSU worked with fossilized turkey dung. Speller says they used extensive DNA testing to achieve new levels of detail and insight into how stocks were managed and bred.

The team’s DNA analysis included 149 bones from ancient and present-day birds, including samples from a Vancouver Island turkey farm, and 29 fossilized dung samples. The ancient samples are from 38 archaeological sites. DNA tests suggest that while the ancestral Puebloans also introduced wild turkeys into their stocks there is no genetic evidence that these breeds survived to the present day.

Speller says it appears that only the pre-Aztec breed survived and today’s turkeys are derived from them. But the modern-day gobbler’s provenance is not simple. Following the Spaniards’ conquest of the Aztecs, they took turkeys back to Europe where they were bred in different varieties before being re-introduced to North America.

Earlier studies found that Native Americans raised domestic turkeys and used their feathers in rituals and ceremonies and to make blankets. Says Speller, "It wasn’t until around 1100 A.D. that domestic turkeys became an important food source."

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