Evidence Of Earlier Turkey Domestication In Mayan Culture
August 10, 2012

Researchers Find Evidence Of Early Domestication of Turkeys In Mayan Culture

April Flowers for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

Turkeys were domesticated more than 1,000 years earlier than previously believed, says a new study from the University of Florida, published online in PLoS ONE this week.

Turkeys are one of the most widely consumed birds worldwide, and the discovery of turkey bones in an ancient Mayan archaeological site in Guatemala provides evidence of domestication and the earliest evidence of the Mexican Turkey in the Maya world.

Domestication is usually a significant mark of civilization and the Maya did not use a lot of domesticated animals, making this find significant. While they did cultivate domesticated plants, most of their animal protein came from wild resources.

"We might have gotten the timing of the introduction of this species to the ancient Maya wrong by a significant chunk of time," Erin Thornton, a research associate at the Florida Museum of Natural History on the UF campus and Trent University Archaeological Research Centre, said. "The species originates from central Mexico, outside the Maya cultural area. This is the species the Europeans brought back with them to Europe -- all domestic turkeys originated from Mexico."

With the use of archaeological evidence, comparisons of bone structure and ancient DNA analysis, the research team determined that the turkey fossils belonged to a non-local species, Meleagris gallopavo gallopavo, which is native to central and northern Mexico. Mesoamerica's only indigenous domesticated animal, the Mexican turkey is the ancestor of all domestic turkeys consumed in the world today.

South of the turkey's natural range, the discovery of these bones shows animal exchange occurred from northern Mesoamerica to the Maya cultural area during the Late Preclassic period from 300 B.C. to A.D. 100.

"This research has consequences for understanding Maya subsistence because they would have had access to a controlled, managed resource," Thornton said. "The turkey bones came from right within the ceremonial precinct of the site, so these are probably the remains of some sort of elite sacrifice, meal or feast."

The bones were recovered from the El Mirador archaeological site, one of the largest and most developed Preclassic locations found in the Maya lowlands. The site, which flourished from about 6th century B.C. to the 1st century A.D., contains massive temple complexes, some of the largest Maya architecture ever constructed. While the fossils were originally excavated in the 1980's, they were displayed in the Brigham Young University Museum of Peoples and Cultures until being sent to Thornton for identification in 2004.

"Plant and animal domestication suggests a much more complex relationship between humans and the environment -- you're intentionally modifying it and controlling it," Thornton said.

Scientists assume turkey bones previously recovered from Maya sites belonged to the native ocellated turkey, Meleagris ocellata. The new evidence means researchers may need to re-examine previously recovered bones.

"This study is extremely significant and I think it opens up a whole new perspective on the Maya and animal domestication," said Florida State University anthropology professor emeritus Mary Pohl. "I find it especially interesting that these turkey bones are in this very special pyramid context because people often think of turkeys as something to eat, but they were probably making some sort of special offerings of them, which would go along with the fact that they brought them in from a long distance."

A new, $185,000 grant from the National Science Foundation will help answer some of the questions the study has raised about the history of turkey rearing and domestication in Mesoamerica, Florida Museum researchers hope.

"The turkeys were brought in, they weren't local, but we don't know if they were brought in and then killed shortly after, used as a trade item or bred on-site after an even earlier introduction," Thornton said. "The El Mirador study is really just a tantalizing piece of the puzzle and we still have a lot left to learn and explore."