Prehistoric turkey research team
Members of the team researching prehistoric turkeys in Tijeras Pueblo (l to r) Jaqueline Kocer, Emily Jones, Cyler Conrad, Seth Newsome.  

It was meant to be a simple project. When UNM Assistant Professor of Anthropology Emily Jones began working with graduate student Cyler Conrad they wanted to set up a trial project with a simple yes or no outcome. Conrad needed to learn how to work with stable isotopes from animal bone, a method which provides insight into what animals were eating in the past, as part of his dissertation.

Jones has been working with the animal bones recovered from UNM’s archaeological excavations of Tijeras Pueblo in the 1970’s. Many of the animal bones from Tijeras are turkeys, which led Jones to wonder: were the archaeological turkeys recovered from Tijeras Pueblo domestic, or wild?

Research done elsewhere in the American Southwest had indicated that carbon isotopes showing a C4 diet for archaeological turkeys would suggest that these birds were fed maize, while isotopes showing a C3 diet would suggest that they were wild.

Jones and Conrad embarked on an isotopic project that had two aims; testing a straightforward research question important for understanding prehistoric subsistence at Tijeras Pueblo, and helping Conrad find out how to do isotope research at UNM.

Finding a research collaborator on bone isotopes turned out to be easy. UNM’s Center for Stable Isotopes (CSI), an interdisciplinary collaboration between the Departments of Biology, Earth and Planetary Sciences and Anthropology (among others) has as part of its mission, the training of students.

Cyler Conrad at work in Center for Stable Isotopes
Cyler Conrad at work in Center for Stable Isotopes

This began a fruitful collaboration between Jones, Conrad and Seth Newsome, assistant professor of Biology and CSI associate director.

But the results of their collaboration turned out to be anything but simple.

“Cyler started doing the lab work, and got the results, and they weren’t what we expected,” said Jones. “Half the turkeys had a wild diet and half of them were eating maize.” Jones said that pattern had never been seen before in the Southwest. “Initially, we assumed that the “wild diet” turkeys were Merriam’s turkey, the local wild turkey common in the Sandia Mountains today, while the turkeys with a maize diet were domestic. This is the usual interpretation of isotope results like ours, but we couldn’t know for sure without working with a specialist in turkey DNA.”

Jones and Conrad began to work with Brian M. Kemp of Washington State University, an expert on ancient turkey DNA to help them understand what might be happening.

They sent a sample of turkeys to Kemp for genetic testing. Again, the results were unexpected.

“The majority of the wild diet turkeys were genetically domestic,” Jones said. “The ancient DNA results, combined with the isotope study, suggest that half the turkeys at Tijeras Pueblo were ‘free-ranged’ but not feral. “It is clear the wild diet turkeys were not feral because they did not mix genetically with the Merriam’s wild turkeys, a different subspecies present in the nearby mountains.”

Jones and Conrad think the turkeys who foraged were herded, or their movements were somehow controlled by the people who lived in Tijeras Pueblo. This method of controlling free-ranging of turkeys has been documented ethnographically among Eastern Puebloan peoples, but has never been seen archaeologically before.

Tijeras Pueblo is on the eastern edge of land occupied by Ancestral Puebloan people. It has a higher elevation in the foothills of the Sandia Mountains and maize farming would have been more marginal than it was for pueblos in the bottom lands near the Rio Grande. That may have been one reason only some turkeys were fed and others were allowed to forage on their own.

This led Jones, Conrad and Newsome to wonder, were turkeys free-ranged in other high-elevation areas marginal for maize agriculture?

They turned to UNM Anthropology graduate student Jacqueline Kocer who works in the high-elevation Gallina area (northeast of Chaco Canyon) for help. Kocer contributed seven turkey specimens from the Gallina region to the study. Most of them showed the ‘wild diet’ signature, suggesting variability in prehistoric turkey husbandry in at least one other high-elevation area.

Turkey bone preparation
Turkey bone preparation

The Tijeras turkey project has provided the first archaeological evidence of free-ranged turkeys. In addition, it has shown the bone isotopes cannot always be used as a proxy for domestication. And perhaps more importantly, it has shown that there was significant variability in methods of turkey husbandry in the prehistoric Southwest.

The research has also raised a number of questions.

The research group is sure the people who occupied Tijeras Pueblo between AD 1300 and 1425 had lots of turkeys. Some of them were fed maize, some were not. This is the only site studied so far in the Southwest where turkeys were treated in two different ways.

“We know there was something more complex going on her than we thought in the way the people of this pueblo interacted with turkeys. We don’t know what the difference means, though. Were there two groups of people living at Tijeras Pueblo, people with different ideas of how to raise turkeys? Is there some other cultural or perhaps ritual significance in the pattern? Without more research we can’t answer these question,” said Jones.

The team’s work has just been published in the journal “Science Direct.”

She is interested in learning more about turkeys in the Southwest. She and Kocer hope to learn more about the ways in which the Gallina people raised turkeys and Jones also wonders why the domestic turkeys raised in the pueblos seem to have vanished after the Spanish came to the southwest. She says there is very little archeological evidence of them after the arrival of the Spanish.

It is trying to find the answers to questions like this that keep archeologists on the hunt for answers. Jones teaches an Introduction to Archaeology course each year, and she says she is using this project as an illustration of the way research can take students in unexpected directions.