People Have Been Raising Turkeys in Mexico for 1500 Years

(c) Linda Nicholas, The Field Museum
(c) Linda Nicholas, The Field Museum / (c) Linda Nicholas, The Field Museum

The relationship between humans and turkeys may not be a great one, but it’s certainly enduring. Archaeologists have discovered the remains of domesticated turkeys at the site of a 5th-century CE ritual sacrifice in Oaxaca, Mexico. They published their findings in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

Archaeologists have theorized that humans had started raising turkeys by the year 400 or 500 CE, but they had relatively little evidence. Then, in 2009 and 2010, researchers excavating the famous ancient fortress of Mitla in Oaxaca uncovered piles of turkey bones and eggs.

One of those researchers was archaeologist Gary Feinman of The Field Museum in Chicago. “It was very exciting because it’s very rare to find a whole cluster of intact eggs,” he said in a press statement. “This was very unexpected.”

Bone expert and lead author Heather Lapham of the University of North Carolina recognized the remains and their significance immediately. Lapham counted five intact or unhatched eggs, plus the bones of seven newly hatched turkey poults: an offering. Nearby were broken eggshells and the remains of many other juvenile and adult turkeys.

Feinman, Lapham, and their colleague Linda Nicholas brought the turkey eggs back to the laboratory and examined them under high-powered scanning electron microscopes. They discovered that the eggs were not all the same age. Some were unfertilized, while others had been recently fertilized when they were buried under the floors and in the walls. Others still contained embryos that were nearly ready to hatch.

The presence of eggs and turkeys of all different developmental stages suggests that the fortress’s inhabitants had regular access to a flock. These birds weren’t hunted or collected from the wild. They’d been raised here.

People carrying turkeys in the marketplace, Oaxaca. Image Credit: © Linda Nicholas, The Field Museum

The domestication of these birds by the Zapotec people would have been hugely beneficial to their culture and economy. “There were very few domesticated animals in Oaxaca and Mesoamerica in general compared with Eurasia,” Feinman said. “Eurasia had lots of different meat sources, but in Oaxaca 1500 years ago, the only assuredly domestic meat sources were turkeys and dogs.”

That changed with the arrival of the Spanish, who brought over domesticated pigs, chickens, and cows. Yet turkeys remain an important part of life in Oaxaca to this day. They’re given as gifts, included in important feasts, and are still used in ritual offerings. “The reasons might be different,” the authors write, “certainly the gods are different, but this practice among the Zapotec of ritually sacrificing turkeys and egg offerings shows amazing continuity over an extended period.”