Curator’s Corner: The Ever-Humble Turkey

by Amanda Mather, Curator of Collections

turkeyOne of the few domesticated animals (dogs, llamas, guinea pigs, and Muscovy ducks being the others) in the New World, turkeys were ubiquitous in the Southwest. Although there is some debate among archaeologists as to whether turkeys were domesticated in Mesoamerica, most evidence suggests that they were first domesticated in the Southwest and later exported to Mesoamerica and other regions.

The turkey was most likely domesticated within the Rio Grande Valley of Northern New Mexico and then spread south to Mexico and beyond. The world can thank the Puebloans of Northern New Mexico for the holiday table centerpiece.

First-hand accounts speak to the sheer number of turkeys being kept and bred in the Southwest, specifically New Mexico. Hernando Gallegos, historian who chronicled the Chamuscado-Rodriguez expedition in 1581 in the Northern Pueblos of the Rio Grande writes, “There is not an Indian who does not have a corral for his turkeys, each of which holds a flock of one hundred birds.”

The turkey was also used for its feathers, which were were used in making warm blankets for cold New Mexican nights. Fray Toribio de Benavente who was with Coronado on his 1540’s expedition speaks to their use for this purpose, “They have a few turkeys (which he called gallinas ) which they keep in order to make mantas from their feathers.”

It is interesting to note here that he never once speaks of them eating the turkeys, only in reference to the use of their feathers. We find this in the archeological record as well, turkeys usually lived into ripe old age, or had injuries that had clearly been cared for. I personally dug up a ritualized turkey burial at Philmont Scout Ranch, and it was quite clear that tender care had been taken in the burial of the bird.

Although from the archeological record it appears Spanish colonists strongly favored their own domesticates, such as the chicken, turkeys eventually incorporated themselves into the Spanish Colonial diet.

Today, turkeys are not raised in any kind of scale in New Mexico; ironic, since it appears this is the place of their first domestication. The turkeys we think of at the holiday table are a far cry from their Ancestral Puebloan roots; most are raised on the East Coast or Midwest.

When you are giving thanks this holiday season, be sure to include a shout-out to the ancient Puebloans for making turkey a part of our lives!

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