The 2,000 Year Old Bird
In 1972, Bill Lipe spent several days digging through ancient trash in an archaeological dig in southeastern Utah. Among the junk were coprolites, very old, very dry turkey droppings.
Lipe took the trove back to his job at the Museum of Northern Arizona, then to Washington State University, where he is now a professor of anthropology. In 2008, molecular biologist Brian Kemp came to the Pullman campus to set up a specialized lab capable of analyzing ancient DNA. It turns out that Lipe’s ancient poop contained DNA of one of North America’s earliest examples of domesticated birds.
The WSU anthropologists, who worked with colleagues at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, say the turkeys raised by people in the Southwest were genetically distinct from previously known domesticated turkeys in Mexico.
“We can now say this is the first bird domesticated in what is now the United States,” says Kemp, who helped analyze the mitochondrial DNA of the earliest examples—some dating to 100 BC.
“It highlights the importance of curation,” he says. “We can say, ‘Why do we have this old crap lying around?’ and somebody might say, ‘Why do we spend so much money curating a bag of crap?’ Well, because we have no idea what we’re going to be able to learn from that.”
The research shows that many early Native American groups across the Southwest raised turkeys with genetic signatures distinct from turkeys domesticated in pre-historic Mexico.
The fact that the Southwest domesticated turkeys go back at least 2,000 years is testimony to the persistent innovation of Homo sapiens, says Kemp.
“It speaks to the resourcefulness of prehistoric peoples, our species,” he said. “We are really, really good at taming nature. We see it independently done by different people all over the world at different times.”
For more on Kemp and Lipe’s research, visit Washington State Magazine.
For more on the PNAS paper, visit Discovery News.
And the Los Angeles Times has a nice take on the work.