The Native Americans of the American Southwest used about 11,500 feathers to make a turkey feather blanket, according to a new publication in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports. The people who made such blankets were the ancestors of today’s Pueblo Indians such as the Hopi, Zuni and Rio Grande Pueblos.
A team led by archaeologists from Washington State University analyzed a turkey feather blanket from southeastern Utah, about 800 years old and measuring 99 x 108 cm (about 39 x 42.5 inches), to get a better idea of how it was made. Her work revealed that thousands of down feathers were wound around 180 meters (almost 200 meters) of yucca fiber string to make the blanket, which is currently on display at the Cedars State Park Museum in Blanding, Utah.
The researchers also counted body feathers from the skins of wild turkeys purchased from ethically and legally compliant dealers in Idaho to obtain an estimate of how many turkeys would have been needed to make the feathers of the blanket. Their efforts show that between four and ten turkeys would have been needed to make the blanket, depending on the length of the feathers selected.
“Blankets or robes made with turkey feathers as insulation were widely used by the ancestral Pueblo peoples of today’s highland southwest, but little is known about how they were made because so few such textiles have survived due to their perishability,” said Bill Lipe, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at WSU and lead author of the paper. “The aim of this study was to shed new light on the production of turkey feather blankets and to explore the economic and cultural aspects of breeding turkeys to provide the feathers.
It is widely believed that clothing and blankets made from animal skins, fur or feathers were innovations that were critical to the spread of humans to cold environments at higher latitudes and altitudes, such as the highlands southwest of the United States, where most of the early settlements were at altitudes above 5,000 feet.
Earlier work by Lipe and others shows that turkey feathers began to replace rabbit skin strips in the first two centuries AD in the construction of twisted blankets in the region. Ethnographic data suggests that the blankets were made by women and were used in cold weather as capes, sleeping blankets, and finally as burial bags.
“When the rural population of Pueblo species flourished, there were probably many thousands of feather blankets in circulation at the same time,” said Shannon Tushingham, a co-author of the study and assistant professor of anthropology at WSU. “It is likely that every member of an ancestral pueblo community, from infants to adults, owned one.
Another interesting result of the study was that the turkey feathers used by ancestral Pueblo peoples to make clothing were most likely harvested painlessly from live birds during the natural moulting season. This would have allowed for the sustainable collection of feathers several times a year during a bird’s lifetime, which could have exceeded 10 years. Archaeological findings indicate that turkeys have generally not been used as a food source since their domestication in the first centuries B.C. until the 1100s and 1200s B.C., when the wild stocks in the region were exhausted by over-hunting.
Prior to this period, most of the turkey bones reported from archaeological sites are whole skeletons of adult birds that were deliberately buried, indicating a ritual or cultural significance. Such burials took place even when more turkeys were reared for food.
“When the blanket that we analyzed for our study was made, we thought that the birds that provided the feathers would probably have been treated as household essentials and completely buried in early 1200 AD,” said Lipe. “This reverence for turkeys and their feathers is still evident today in the dances and rituals of the pueblo. They are at the top of the list of eagle feathers that are symbolically and culturally important”.
In the long term, the researchers hope that the study will help people to understand the importance of turkeys to Native American cultures throughout the Southwest.
“Turkeys were one of the very few domesticated animals in North America until the Europeans arrived around 1500 and 1600,” Tushingham said. “They had and still have a very important cultural Ro