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Feather Blanket Proves Importance of Turkeys to Pueblo Indians

Feather Blanket Proves Importance of Turkeys to Pueblo Indians

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Research has shown that the humble turkey played a very important role in Pueblo Indian societies in the southwestern United States. Experts have been able to study an exceedingly rare feather blanket made out of turkey feathers. This remarkable object is allowing researchers to better understand the economy and culture of the Pueblo Indians.

A multidisciplinary team from Washington State University recently analyzed an 800-year-old blanket made from turkey feathers. This remarkably preserved item is on public display in a museum in Utah. Their examination revealed that the blanket was made out of approximately 11,500 downy feathers which had been wrapped around 590 feet (180m) of yucca fiber cord.

The team also purchased the pelts of some wild turkeys, that were obtained from recognized dealers, who adhere to ethical and legal standards. Based on these pelts, the archaeologists have estimated that it would have taken the feathers of four to ten turkeys to make a blanket of this kind. The blanket would have taken a great deal of time and skill to make.

Image of an intact feather blanket. (Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum / Science Direct)

Image of an intact feather blanket. (Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum / Science Direct )

The Ancient Craft of Feather Blanket Making

Emeritus Professor Bill Lipe, one of the leads of the study, told Eureka Alert that “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.” They inhabited what is now the modern southwestern United States and are noted for their adobe houses and handicrafts. Professor Lipe told Eureka Alert that “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.”

Garments and blankets were important for the Native Americans and it allowed them to live in colder environments such as the uplands of the southwest of the USA. Typically, they built their villages at over 5,000 feet (1,524 m.). Based on previous work, it has been found that turkey feathers began to replace rabbit fur in blankets between 100 and 200 AD.

Science Daily reports that Shannon Tushingham, a  WSU professor of anthropology as stating that “as ancestral Pueblo farming populations flourished, many thousands of feather blankets would likely have been in circulation at any one time.” It is assumed that every Puebloan had a blanket, both the young and the old, and males and females. Women typically made the blankets which were used as bedding, cloaks and even as shrouds for the dead.

Bill Lipe and Shannon Tushingham collect feathers from a wild turkey pelt in Tushingham's lab at Washington State University. (WSU)

Bill Lipe and Shannon Tushingham collect feathers from a wild turkey pelt in Tushingham's lab at Washington State University. ( WSU)

Painless Harvesting and Turkey Burials?

The study also revealed details about turkey husbandry. The researchers wrote in the Journal of Archaeology Science that “blanket feathers were probably most frequently collected from live birds, although natural molts or recently killed birds may have contributed.” The majority of the feathers were taken painlessly from live birds. These domesticated birds were probably kept for their feathers and they could have been harvested several times a year. These turkeys could have provided feathers for a period of up to a decade.

Archaeologists have found evidence that the turkey was not generally a food source until about 1,200 AD. This was because there were plenty of wild birds to hunt. It was only when the wild population was depleted that turkeys were raised as food. This led to massive growth in the numbers of domesticate fowls kept by the Native Americans .

Before 1,200 AD and even after, Eureka Alert reports that “most turkey bones reported from archaeological sites are whole skeletons from mature birds that were intentionally buried.” This would suggest that the fowl had some religious or cultural significance. Turkeys continued to be buried even after more and more of them were being raised for food.

During analysis of the feather blanket, the researchers analyzed feathers of different sizes sourced from pelts of modern turkeys. (Trent Myles Raymer / Science Direct)

During analysis of the feather blanket, the researchers analyzed feathers of different sizes sourced from pelts of modern turkeys. (Trent Myles Raymer / Science Direct )

The Cultural Importance of Turkey

Lipe told Science Daily that “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." It seems that some fowl were regarded as being important for households and the community.

“Turkeys were one of the very few domesticated animals in North America until Europeans arrived in the 1500s and 1600s,” Shannon Tushingham, one of the authors of the study, told Eureka Alert . When the Spanish, based in Mexico, conquered the Pueblo area, chicken and sheep were introduced to supply meat and also to provide material for garments. This led to the end of the the manufacture of blankets from turkey feathers. It is also believed that the type of fowl that was used to harvest the feathers also disappeared at this time.

The researchers wrote in the Journal of Archaeology Science that “further research on the manufacture and use of feather blankets is warranted in the context of their important roles in ancestral Pueblo material culture .” These blankets reveal how the Native Americans were able to create a sophisticated society that thrived in a hostile environment. Moreover, it demonstrates the surprising importance of turkeys in Native American societies.

Top image: The team from Washington State University found that the feather blanket was made out of about 11,5000 downy feathers, wrapped around yucca fiber cord. In the image, a fiber cord wrapped with turkey feathers. Source: WSU

By Ed Whelan

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