Were Turkeys Pets, Gods, or Food in PreColumbian Mesoamerica?

Ancient Turkey Bones In Mexico Reveal A Strange Relationship With Humans

Archaeological evidence backs up Cortés’ claim that ancient people ate turkey, but more bones appear in special locations than at garbage sites. Because their bones show up in these high status, ceremonial locales, turkeys were probably mainly prized for more than their meat. “There is another site where we have evidence of complete turkeys with human burials,” says Aurelie Manin, an archaeologist at the University of York, in the United Kingdom.

Manin and a team of researchers recently took a look at turkey bones from archaeological sites throughout Mesoamerica — the region spanning present-day central Mexico to Costa Rica — and published their results in the Royal Society Open Science.

Before their analysis, they knew turkeys were symbolically important to ancient Mesoamericans. The Aztec Codex includes turkeys alongside important gods and ceremonies, showing their special status. There’s even a turkey deity, Chalchiuhtotolin, god of the plagues. Archaeologists had found an ancient flute, called an ocarina, decorated with a turkey drawing at a grave site in Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico. And in Oaxtepec, Morelos, Mexico, a dig uncovered the complete turkey skeleton at a burial that Manin mentioned, suggesting Mesoamerican people sometimes buried humans with turkeys.

“It seems that they were sometimes putting the turkeys on plates [at burials], so they might have been cooked somehow, or the turkey would just lay next to the individual,” Manin says. It’s hard to tell whether a turkey at a grave site is meant as a companion, a snack, or a status symbol, but any of those options elevate the turkey above an ordinary bird.

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