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A new study published by the Royal Society Open Science suggests that turkeys in some parts of the Americas were raised for “rituals” and “sacrifices,” not Sunday dinner.

A “compelling argument for the intensification of turkey husbandry in the Postclassic period, and indeed the management of turkeys in early periods in Mesoamerica, relates to the symbolic and political importance of both wild and domestic turkeys throughout the history of Mesoamerica,” the report explains.

“This role is emphasized by finds such as: the earliest Maya turkeys, all found in ritual caches in elite temples; the more recent finding that all Classic Maya M. gallopavo are associated with elite and ritual deposits; a Postclassic palace midden at the site of Texcoco containing almost exclusively turkey bones; and the high frequency of turkey bones in Postclassic funerary deposits at the site of Vista Hermosa (Gulf Coast) and their virtual absence in domestic refuse,” the study finds.

It continues: “Mesoamerican intensification in turkey husbandry may be less strongly linked to demograhic and environmental factors, and may instead have been driven by a strong demand related to the emergence of new policies and trade routes, with the use of domestic birds for various uses including human and carnivore consumption, rituals and sacrifices.”

At ScienceAlert, David Nield explained, “It turns out that the birds were being used for rituals, sacrifices, and even as stand-ins for deities for hundreds of years, prized by the Maya and Aztecs.”

Chalchiuhtotolin, as depicted in the Codex Telleriano-Remensis

Chalchiuhtotolin, as depicted in the Codex Telleriano-Remensis

Among many Aztec turkey dieties was Chalchiuhtotolin, “Precious Night Turkey,” god of plagues who ruled thirteen days of the Aztec calendar.

The study looked at the remains of 55 turkeys that lives at some time during a period from about 200 B.C. to A.D 1500.

The results suggested the birds were not just being raised to be eaten.

“Turkey bones are rarely found in domestic refuse in Mesoamerica and most of the turkeys we studied had not been eaten,” lead researcher Aurelie Manin said in Nield’s report.

Manin is from the University of York, in the U.K.

“Some were found buried in temples and human graves, perhaps as companions for the afterlife. This fits with what we know about the iconography of the period, where we see turkeys depicted as gods and appearing as symbols in the calendar.”

The study authors explain they wanted to look at the geographical origins and wild progenitors of Mesoamerican turkeys and the human intervention in the population.

In the southwestern United States, turkey husbandry began between 200 and 500 B.C. The study focused, however, on Mesoamerican turkeys, since less research has been done there.

They found that the “brightly plumed ocellated turkey” was found to have been among the population.

The study looked at the evidence of feeding, the locations, the DNA and more.

“The archaeological evidence suggests that meat from deer and rabbit was a more popular meal choice for people in pre-Columbian societies,” Manin said. “Turkeys are likely to have also been kept for their increasingly important symbolic and cultural role.”

Camilla Speller, also of the University of York, said of the study’s results: “Even though humans in this part of the word had been practicing agriculture for around 10,000 years, the turkey was the first animal, other than the dog, people in Mesoamerica started to take under their control.”

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