Wednesday, December 05, 2018

It Was All About the Feathers

The combination of an email from a dear Wethersfield friend, and the recent holiday has prompted me to write a short essay on the prominent role played by the turkey in New Mexico history.

It probably should have occurred to him before.  To our surprise, most of the talks and lectures on our new home state’s past have included something about the large North American members of the Phasianidae family and their importance to the evolution of the Land of Enchantment.  Oddly the only one that did not was a “Foodways” talk at the Office of Archaeological Studies about “The First Thanksgiving” where the only mention of the wattled avian was that it was not part of the menu.  (In social science “Foodways” are the cultural, social, and economic practices relating to the production and consumption of food.

The email contained part of an article from “Science’ magazine the point of which was that (to quote the magazine) “Mayans raised and managed wild turkeys – the same species as the Butterball on your table – more than 2300 years ago, making them the first vertebrates to be domesticated on the North American continent.”

Likewise for the Pueblo Indians who were here long before the 1500s when the Spanish began their exploration of what was to become Nuevo Mexico.

But the Puebloans – and in general the Mayans also – did not raise the birds as a source of food.  Analysis of human hair found at various New Mexican sites show a diet where approximately 80% of the protein and calories were from maize.  Other foods included amaranth, rice grass, pine nuts, squash and some red meat such as mountain sheep and deer. 

More evidence comes from the turkey bones themselves that have been found during archeological digs in New Mexico.  The condition of these ancient hard issues indicates that virtually all of these feathered animals died intact – with no signs of having been roasted or having their drumsticks gnawed on.  Some actually look to have been deliberaely buried.  One or two indicated that the turkey might have broken a leg, which the Natives seem to have attempted to set or splint in order to keep it alive.

So, if not nutriment then what?  It seems it was all about the feathers.

Pueblo Indians made prayer sticks, masks and headdresses out of the feathers, which were “live-plucked” from the short layer of the bird’s tail.  Bristles from the “beard” (the coarse black hairs that grow on the breast of adult males) were also added to the thin pieces of carved wood.

But principally the turkey feathers were used to make clothes, pouches, ornaments, necklaces – and turkey blankets.

“The making of turkey feather fabrics consisted of stripping the large wing and tail feathers from live turkeys, wrapping the feathers around feather cords, and weaving the cords into robes and blanket…Humans because of their particular needs continued to favor live turkeys as a source of ritual feathers for sacrifice, and in the production of textiles.” according to “More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality” by Karen Davis.

At the ruins of Kuaua Pueblo at present day Coronado Historic Site in Bernallilo, N.M. we were able to see structures that formerly were used as enclosures for the domesticated turkeys.  And, after hearing so much about these birds, with not too much imagination we were able to picture a phantom profusion of partially plucked Phasianidae parading pathetically in the Pueblo.

Or maybe it was just the altitude.


This photo illustrates why woven, woolen Navajo blankets were a bigger hit with the tourists.