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Saturday, August 11, 2012

Ancient Maya Domesticated Wild Turkey 2300 Years Ago

Published online in the journal PLoS ONE, the discovery of the turkey bones at an ancient Mayan archaeological site in Guatemala provides evidence of domestication, usually a significant mark of civilization, and the earliest evidence of the Mexican turkey, Meleagris gallopavo, in the Maya world.

“The discovery of the turkey bones is significant because the Maya did not use a lot of domesticated animals. While they cultivated domesticated plants, most of their animal protein came mostly from wild resources,” said lead author Dr Erin Thornton, a research associate at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

“We might have gotten the timing of the introduction of this species to the ancient Maya wrong by a significant chunk of time,” Dr Thornton 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.”

Using archaeological evidence, comparisons of bone structure and ancient DNA analysis, the scientists determined the turkey fossils belonged to the non-local species Meleagris gallopavo gallopavo, which is native to central and northern Mexico.

The Mexican turkey is the ancestor of all domestic turkeys consumed in the world today and Mesoamerica’s only indigenous domesticated animal. The discovery of the bones south of the turkey’s natural range shows animal exchange occurred from northern Mesoamerica to the Maya cultural region during the Late Preclassic period from 300 BC to 100 CE.

“This research has consequences for understanding Maya subsistence because they would have had access to a controlled, managed resource,” Dr 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 contains massive temple complexes, some of the largest Maya architecture ever constructed.

“Plant and animal domestication suggests a much more complex relationship between humans and the environment – you’re intentionally modifying it and controlling it,” Dr Thornton said.

“Researchers assumed 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,” said Prof Mary Pohl of Florida State University.

“This study is extremely significant and I think it opens up a whole new perspective on the Maya and animal domestication,” Prof Pohl said. “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.”

Source: Sci News


Bibliographic information: Thornton et al. 2012. Earliest Mexican Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) in the Maya Region: Implications for Pre-Hispanic Animal Trade and the Timing of Turkey Domestication. PLoS ONE 7(8): e42630; doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0042630


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