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!

Curator’s Corner: Pumpkins!

by Amanda Mather, Curator of Collections

The humble pumpkin, or Cucurbita pepo has a fascinating history, and a really interesting present. Pumpkins are actually just one variety of winter squash, the pumpkin is simply the most recognizable. One of the oldest domestic crops, humans have been having their pumpkins and eating them too for about 7,000 years. First grown in Mesoamerica and possibly the American south, pumpkins gradually spread all over the continent, because they are delicious, quite hardy and easy to grow in many climates.

Native peoples used all parts of the pumpkin, roasting the flesh or cutting it into long strips to dry for the winter. The seeds, which we all know are delicious, were eaten whole or could be ground into flour and helped fortify other dishes. The leaves and flowers were also cooked and eaten. In many parts of the world, the greens of the pumpkin are as valued as the fruit—and if you have never had a fried squash blossom I highly recommend it!

Native peoples crossbred and selectively bred pumpkins for so long, there are now an almost countless amount of varieties—just head on over to Trader Joe’s and you’ll see what I mean. After contact, the pumpkin spread all over the globe changing as it went. Today, across the world humans collectively grow about 30 million tons of pumpkins, with China leading the pack, growing about 1/3 of the world’s favorite orange squash.

Of course, the pumpkin serves as an iconic reminder of the coming of fall and Halloween. The jack o’ lantern came to us by way of a British tradition of carving vegetables, particularly turnips, for Halloween. This was said to keep away the bad spirits that came with All Hallow’s Eve. (note: if you’ve never seen a carved turnip, look to your left and prepare to be horrified.) When British, Irish, and Scottish folks immigrated to the United States they began using the much more common, not to mention larger, pumpkins. Today in America we collectively spend around $380 million on our beloved jack o’ lanterns each year—that’s a whole lot of green for a whole lot of orange!