Ancients Kept Warm With Blankets Made From Turkey Feathers

Turkey Feathers

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Turkey Feathers

Ancients Kept Warm With Blankets Made From Turkey Feathers

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Each year in late November, millions of people across the United States sit down to Thanksgiving dinner, truly thankful that their roasted turkey will keep them warm, at least on the inside.

But long before that – indeed, probably thousands of years before that – the ancient Pueblo Indians were also giving thanks for the warmth provided by turkeys, but in this case, it was definitely on the outside.

Archaeologists from Washington State University (WSU) in the United States have discovered that the Pueblo Indians of the American Southwest – largely modern New Mexico, Utah and parts of Arizona – kept themselves warm during the long cold desert nights with blankets made from the feathers of domesticated turkeys.

Pueblo Indians
Pueblo Indians via Britannica

A paper published this week in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports says that the ancestors of the present-day Pueblo people routinely wrapped themselves up in blankets constructed from as many as 11, 500 individual turkey feathers, proving that ancient cultures could be not only innovative but also resourceful and acutely aware of their natural environment.

A team led by Washington State University archaeologists analysed an approximately 800-year-old, 99 x 108 cm (about 39 x 42.5 inches) turkey feather blanket from south-eastern Utah to get a better idea of how it was made.

The study revealed thousands of downy body feathers were wrapped around 180 meters (nearly 200 yards) of yucca fibre cord to make the blanket, which is currently on display at the Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum in Blanding, Utah. 

The people who made these blankets were ancestors of present-day Pueblo Indians such as the Hopi, Zuni, and Rio Grande Pueblos.

The researchers also counted body feathers from the pelts of wild turkeys purchased from ethically and legally compliant dealers in Idaho to get an estimate of how many turkeys would have been needed to provide feathers for the blanket. They say it would have taken feathers from between four to 10 turkeys to make the blanket, depending on the length of feathers selected.

“Blankets or robes made with turkey feathers as the insulating medium were widely used by Ancestral Pueblo people in what is now the Upland Southwest, but little is known about how they were made because so few such textiles have survived due to their perishable nature,” says Bill Lipe, emeritus professor of anthropology at WSU and lead author of the paper. “The goal of this study was to shed new light on the production of turkey feather blankets and explore the economic and cultural aspects of raising turkeys to supply the feathers.”

Clothing and blankets made of animal hides, furs or feathers are widely assumed to have been innovations critical to the expansion of humans into cold, higher latitude and higher elevation environments, such as the Upland Southwest of the United States where most of the early settlements were at elevations above 5,000 feet.

Previous work by Professor Lipe and others shows turkey feathers began to replace strips of rabbit skin in construction of twined blankets in the region during the first two centuries AD 

Ethnographic data suggests the blankets were made by women and were used as cloaks in cold weather, blankets for sleeping and ultimately as funerary wrappings.

Turkey Feathers
Bill Lipe and Shannon Tushingham collect feathers from a wild turkey pelt in Tushingham’s lab at WSU via WSU

“As ancestral Pueblo farming populations flourished, many thousands of feather blankets would likely have been in circulation at any one time,” says Shannon Tushingham, a co-author on the study and assistant professor of anthropology at WSU. “It is likely that every member of an ancestral Pueblo community, from infants to adults, possessed one.”

Another interesting finding was the turkey feathers used by the ancestral Pueblo people to make garments were most likely painlessly harvested from live birds during natural moulting periods. 

This would have allowed the sustainable collection of feathers several times a year during a bird’s lifetime, which may have exceeded 10 years. 

Archaeological evidence indicates turkeys were generally not used as a food source from the time of their domestication in the early centuries AD until the 1100s and 1200s AD when the supply of wild game in the region had become depleted by over-hunting.

Prior to this period, most turkey bones reported from archaeological sites are whole skeletons from mature birds that were intentionally buried, indicating ritual or cultural significance. Such burials continued to occur even after more turkeys began to be raised for food.

“When the blanket we analysed for our study was made, we think in the early 1200s C.E., the birds that supplied the feathers were likely being treated as individuals important to the household and would have been buried complete,” Professor Lipe said. “This reverence for turkeys and their feathers is still evident today in Pueblo dances and rituals. They are right up there with eagle feathers as being symbolically and culturally important.”

In the long run, the researchers said their hope is the study will help people appreciate the importance of turkeys to Native American cultures across the Southwest.

“Turkeys were one of the very few domesticated animals in North America until Europeans arrived in the 1500s and 1600s,” Shannon Tushingham says. “They had and continue to have a very culturally significant role in the lives of Pueblo people, and our hope is this research helps shed light on this important relationship.”

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