Prehistoric Turkey Husbandry

Emily Lena Jones is an assistant professor of Anthropology at the University of New Mexico, Cyler Conrad is a Ph.D. graduate student in the Department of Anthropology at the University of New Mexico, and Seth Newsome is an assistant professor of Biology at the University of New Mexico. This post describes their collaborative research at the UNM Center for Stable Isotopes on prehistoric turkey husbandry in the American Southwest.

Maize Fed or Wild Diet?

Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) were used for a variety of economic purposes in the prehistoric American Southwest (Lang and Harris 1984). Turkeys were eaten; their feathers were used for blanket production; and their eggs were both consumed for food and used as binders in paint tempera formation. Ancient DNA evidence indicates prehistoric Southwesterners made use of both the wild Merrriam’s turkey (Meleagris gallopavo merriami) and a domestic turkey, which was genetically distinct from both Merriam’s and the Mexican domestic turkey (Speller et al. 2010).

fig 1

Figure 1. A male Merriam’s turkey displaying for a female hen in South Dakota (Image from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service:

Previous stable carbon (δ13C) and nitrogen (δ15N) isotope studies of Southwestern turkeys suggest that prehistorically, turkeys were predominately fed maize (Kellner et al. 2010; McCaffery et al. 2014; Rawlings and Driver 2010). Maize is a C4 plant, and the turkey bones so far sampled display a strong C4 signal (Figure 2).

Stable Isotope Research

Figure 2. Bone collagen data from turkeys in five different sites throughout the American Southwest. Note range of dates and cluster of isotope data near -12‰, suggesting a predominantly maize diet. [a]-Kellner et al. 2010 [b]-Rawlings and Driver 2010 [c]-McCaffery et al. 2014

Figure 2. Bone collagen data from turkeys in five different sites throughout the American Southwest. Note range of dates and cluster of isotope data near -12‰, suggesting a predominantly maize diet. [a]-Kellner et al. 2010 [b]-Rawlings and Driver 2010 [c]-McCaffery et al. 2014

Although previous studies have shown a remarkably consistent picture of turkey husbandry, the sample size from these studies is still relatively small.In addition, most of these studies have focused on sites in the Four Corners region or in Northern New Mexico. We are working to expand this sample to include turkeys from sites from the Middle Rio Grande Valley as well as more sites from high elevations or other “marginal” areas. We are analyzing both turkey bone collagen and apatite to understand the spacing and relationship between organic and inorganic isotope systems (Figure 3). Our data, from sites including Tijeras Pueblo (LA 581), Arroyo Hondo Pueblo (LA 12), and Chamisal Pueblo (LA 22765), suggests a more complex pattern of turkey husbandry practices than has been previously documented for the American Southwest. Within at least some contexts there appears to be a mix of maize-fed and wild-diet turkeys. We look forward to processing more samples and sharing our results in future publications and posts!

fig 3

Figure 3. Turkey bone specimens from Tijeras Pueblo being sonicated after emersion in a bath of 2:1 chloroform/methanol for lipid removal and collagen purification



Kellner, Corina M., Margaret J. Schoeninger, Katherine Spielmann and Katherine Moore. 2010. Stable Isotope Data Show Temporal Stability in Diet at Pecos Pueblo and Diet Variation among Southwest Pueblos. In Morgan, Michèle E. (ed.) Pecos Pueblo Revisited: The Biological and Social Context. Cambridge, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.

Lang, Richard and Arthur Harris. 1984. The Faunal Remains From Arroyo Hondo Pueblo, New Mexico: A Study in Short- Term Subsistence Change. Santa Fe, School of American Research Press.

McCaffery, Harlan, Robert H. Tykot, Kathy Durand Gore and Beau R. DeBoer. 2014. Stable Isotope Analysis of Turkey (Meleagris Gallopavo) Diet from Pueblo II and Pueblo III Sties, Middle San Juan Region, Northwest New Mexico. American Antiquity 79(2): 337-352.

Rawlings, Tiffany A. and Jonathan C. Driver. 2010. Paleodiet of domestic turkey, Shields Pueblo (5MT3807), Colorado: isotopic analysis and its implications for care of a household domesticate. Journal of Archaeological Science 37: 2433-2441.

Speller, Camilla F., Brian M. Kemp, Scott D. Wyatt, Cara Monroe, William D. Lipe, Ursula M. Arndt and Dongya Y. Yang. 2010. Ancient mitochondrial DNA analysis reveals complexity of indigenous North American turkey domestication. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107(7): 2807-2812.


Clams and Climate

Christine Bassett is currently a graduate student working with Fred Andrus in the Department of Geological Sciences at the University of Alabama and holds a B.A. in Anthropology and a B.S. in Geology from the University of Georgia, US.  This post is based on research for her M.S. in Geology at Alabama.

Sclerochronology and Paleoenvironmental Reconstruction in the North Pacific Ocean

The archaeological record reflects fluctuating marine conditions from the Aleutian Islands to the Northwest coast of North America during the Late Holocene (Wanner et al., 2008). Though not widely tested, recent research suggests that conditions may have cooled enough during the Late Holocene cold phase to allow sea ice to accumulate as far south as the Northern Pacific Ocean. My research is focused on establishing sclerochronological analysis of Saxidomus gigantea as a means of detecting differences in sea surface temperatures in the Northern Pacific Ocean. Sclerochronological and isotopic analysis of skeletal carbonates can provide a proxy for sea surface temperatures as well as the length of seasons during the recent geological record. My research will contribute to a larger project focusing on human and animal adaptation to climate change led by Fred Andrus (Univerisity of Alabama), Catherine West (Boston University), and Mike Etnier (Portland State University) by providing an additional proxy for reconstructing environmental conditions in the Late Holocene.

Figure 1. Cross-section of mature shell, age seven years, magnification 10x.  The arrow denotes the distance between two annual winter growth lines (modified from Hallmann et al., 2009).

Figure 1. Cross-section of mature shell, age seven years, magnification 10x. The arrow denotes the distance between two annual winter growth lines (modified from Hallmann et al., 2009).

Sclerochronology is the study of the growth of invertebrate skeletons. I work exclusively with bivalves, whose distinct growth lines mark regular biologically and environmentally controlled growth intervals (Hallmann et al., 2009). Isotopic analysis of oxygen (δ18O) from growth lines can identify winter growth bands between successive growing seasons. Nadine Hallman and her colleagues (2009) examined the life history of S. giganteus and compared shell precipitation during the organism’s life with oxygen isotopic analysis. They determined that dark bands (Fig. 1) largely co-occurred with peaks in δ18O (Fig. 2). These dark bands mark the beginning and end of a season of growth and the interval between them represent the length of one growing season.

Oxygen isotope variation

Figure 2. Upper: Shell oxygen isotope record (δ18O, black bars) compared with reconstructed temperature (Tδ18O, light grey curve) and sea surface temperature (SST, dark grey curve) data collected from  Lower:  Daily growth increment width time series (n = number of increments per year.  The blue bars represent the annual winter growth lines measured in (A).  Positive δ18O values correspond with winter growth lines while negative δ18O were sampled from the portion of the shell between winter growth lines.  Oxygen isotope data confirms annual winter growth lines.  Specimen collected September, 9 2007 (modified from Hallmann et al., 2009).

Measuring and comparing the lengths of seasonal shell growth from shells collected at higher latitudes with shells collected from slightly lower latitudes could provide a means of assessing changes in the length of growth seasons, possibly indicating differential sea surfaces temperatures between latitudes. Applying this method to ancient archaeological shells would allow me to test for changes in the length of growing season and by extension, the presence of cold conditions – and possibly sea ice – in the Northern Pacific Ocean during the Late Holocene.

Map of the study area (Alaska)

Figure 3. Collection sites have not yet been determined. Potential site candidates are located along the Gulf of Alaska and include Unalaska (A) and Kodiak Islands (B), Alaska and Dundas Island, B.C. (C) (modified from NASA satellite image).

Winter growth line in S. gigantea

Figure 4. Image of winter growth line in an acetate peel made from S. gigantea cross-section at 40X magnification (Personal image by Bassett, 2014).

To accomplish this, I plan to collect samples of Saxidomus gigantea from Alaska and Northern British Columbia (Fig. 3). I will analyze δ18O profiles across the organism’s second or third year of growth, the most ontogenetically reliable period of growth, to determine that winter growth bands correspond to peaks in δ18O so that later sclerochronological analysis can be performed. For sclerochronological analysis, I will prepare acetate peels (Fig. 4) so that I can then count lunar-daily growth lines between winter growth bands to quantitatively measure the length of the growing season. Assuming I can detect a difference in the length of the growing season between samples collected at different latitudes, I will apply the same method to ancient samples from the same regions. If the method tested here is successful, sclerochronological analysis of bivalves may be able to contribute to δ18O data interpretation and comparative studies with other organisms to provide a more comprehensive view of changes in SST through recent geological history. Understanding climate in the past contributes greatly to archaeological research that seeks to understand how human behavior, particularly the exploitation of floral and faunal resources, changes as components of the environment change.


Hallmann, N., Burchell, M., Schone, B.R., Irvine, G.V., Maxwell, D., 2009, High-resolution sclerochronological analysis of the bivalve mollusk Saxidomus gigantea from Alaska and British Columbia: techniques for revealing environmental archives and archaeological seasonality. Journal of Archaeological Science, v. 36, pp. 2353-2364.

Wanner, H., Beer, J., Butikofer, J., Crowley, T.J., Cubasch, U., Fluckiger, J., Goosse, H., Grosjean, M., Joos, F., Kaplan, J.O., Kuttel, M., Muller, S.A., Prentice, C., Solomina, O., Stocker, T.F., Tarasov, P., Wagner, M., and Widmann, M., 2008, Mid- to Late Holocene climate change: an overview. Quaternary Science Reviews, v. 27, no. 19-20, pp. 1791-1828.


Fish for the City

We’re back with new blog posts after a short summer hiatus. Our first post of the academic year (which has already begun for some of us in the US!) comes from David Orton, who is currently an Early Career Research Fellow on the EUROFARM project at University College London, where he is also a Teaching Fellow in Zooarchaeology. Here he shares research that was conducted during his previous postdoctoral fellowship at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge, which was recently published in Antiquity.

A Meta-analysis of Archaeological Cod Remains as a Tool for Understanding the Growth of London’s Northern Trade

The backstory to this research comes in two parts. First, a landmark zooarchaeological study by James Barrett and colleagues (2004) demonstrated an explosion in marine fish consumption in England within a few decades of AD1000.  Before this event – dubbed the ‘Fish Event Horizon’ (FEH) in tribute to Douglas Adams – sea fishing seems to have been rare and small-scale.

Potential source regions and isotopic signatures for archaeological cod bones. Cross-hairs show one standard deviation ranges. Images taken from Orton et al. 2011 under CC BY license.

Second, James and his team applied stable isotope provenancing of cod bones to test whether this FEH represented a local phenomenon or the early onset of long distance trade from northern waters (full disclosure: I joined the project towards the end of this stage, in 2010). δ13C and δ15N signatures were established for six potential fishing regions using 259 samples from more than 10 countries. Applying this ‘target’ specimens from 23 (post)medieval sites around the North Sea (Barrett et al. 2011) and Baltic (Orton et al. 2011), we showed that a significant trade in northern cod existed by the 13th-14th centuries, but that the initial FEH in England primarily entailed local fishing. This raised more questions: when exactly did the trade start, how suddenly, and did the imported fish supplement or replace local catches?

Our new study, just published in Antiquity, combines a new zooarchaeological meta-analysis with the existing isotopic results to tell a clear story regarding cod imports to the city of London. Both elements rely on the same principle: that cod were traditionally decapitated before preservation for long-range trade, and that cranial elements thus normally represent relatively local catches. This allowed us to use head bones to establish regional isotopic signatures in the previous isotope work, but it also means that the cranial:postcranial ratio in consumer sites like London can be a rough index for the relative contribution of imports. We simply compiled all the raw data we could find on well-dated cod bones – almost 3000 specimens from 95 sites, including large datasets from Alison Locker and from MOLA – and plotted it using context-level date ranges.

Stable isotopic provenancing results for 34 archaeological cod vertebrae and cleithra from various London sites (A; data from Barrett et al. 2011) set against AD 700–1700 detail of the estimated frequency distributions (B). Figure taken from Orton et al. 2014 under CC BY license.

The data show a very sudden switch to imports in the early/mid 13th C, with frequency of cranial bones dropping off just as the number of vertebrae increases sharply. This fits the isotopic results remarkably well: before about AD1250 almost all sampled specimens seem to be local; afterwards the majority are probable imports. Locally caught cod thus seem to have been substantially and rapidly replaced in Londoners’ diet by traded fish almost 800 years ago. What this meant for the local fishing industry is uncertain, but should become clearer when we look at other towns and species.

Biomolecular provenancing has a unique ability to provide direct evidence for the source of imported bones, but its cost and destructiveness ultimately limit sample sizes and hence the reliability and resolution of the stories it can tell. Integrating it with the much larger samples that can be marshalled from meta-analyses of conventional zooarchaeological data has great potential to overcome this problem.


Orton DC, Morris J, Locker A and Barrett JH (2014) Fish for the City: meta-analysis of archaeological cod remains as a tool for understanding the growth of London’s northern trade. Antiquity 88, 516-530.

Orton DC, Makowiecki D, de Roo T, Johnstone C, Harland J, Jonsson L et al. (2011) Stable Isotope Evidence for Late Medieval (14th–15th C) Origins of the Eastern Baltic Cod (Gadus morhua) Fishery. PLoS ONE 6, e27568.
[DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0027568]

Barrett J, Orton D, Johnstone C, Harland J, Van Neer W, Ervynck A et al. (2011) Interpreting the expansion of sea fishing in medieval Europe using stable isotope analysis of archaeological cod bones. Journal of Archaeological Science 38, 1516-24.
[DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2011.02.017]

Barrett JH, Locker AM, and Roberts CM (2004b) The origins of intensive marine fishing in medieval Europe: the English evidence. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Series B: Biological Sciences 271, 2417-21. [DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2004.2885]


Climate in Your Dinner

Our latest contributor is Georgia Roberts. Georgia is currently in the second year of her PhD at La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia, and holds a Masters in Archaeological Science from Australian National University.

Investigations of Seasonality in the Archaeological Record of Southwestern Tasmania, Australia

Stable isotope analysis can support a range of zooarchaeological research. One such application is investigating seasonality – assessing the season of death of individual animals. When these animals are associated with archaeological sites, we can use this data to infer season of site use.

The rugged limestone karst landscape of southwestern Tasmania, Australia, contains several archaeological cave sites with exceptional preservation. This region has been described as an archaeological ‘province’ sharing many characteristics, including distinctive faunal collections, dominated by Bennett’s wallaby (70% by Minimum Number of Individual [MNI] counts) and the Common Wombat (27% MNI). The current project focusses on two of these sites – Warreen Cave and Bone Cave.

Related archaeological sites in southwestern Tasmania. Adapted from Cosgrove et al. 2010.

Related archaeological sites in southwestern Tasmania. Adapted from Cosgrove et al. 2010.

The wilderness of southwestern Tasmania.

The wilderness of southwestern Tasmania.

Wombat teeth are continuously growing, capturing the isotopic signature of the surrounding environment in the enamel as it forms. The mandibular incisor is the longest tooth (6-7cm) and records approximately 18 months of isotopic data. By sequentially sampling the enamel, a high-resolution record of local climate (δ18O) and vegetation (δ13C) can be retrieved. By assessing seasonal variation in modern analogues, the data can be used to determine season of death and thus inferred season of site use.

Sequential sampling of tooth enamel along the mandibular incisor from a modern Common wombat.

Sequential sampling of tooth enamel along the mandibular incisor from a modern Common wombat.

Dr Anne Pike-Tay and colleagues (Pike-Tay et al. 2008) used odontochronological analysis to identify that Bennett’s wallabies, the primary prey species, had been killed in the same season throughout the chronology of each site – autumn/winter for Warreen Cave and summer for Bone cave. My PhD uses stable isotopic analysis of Common wombat (Vombatus ursinus) teeth to test this trend, investigating when and how wombats were being utilised by Tasmanian Aboriginal people at the end of the Pleistocene (35,000 to 11,500 years ago).

Tasmanian Common Wombats – female with joey.

Tasmanian Common Wombats – female with joey.

This research is supported by the La Trobe University Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences Internal Funding Scheme, the Australian Archaeological Association Research Grant Scheme and Dr Michael Gagan of the Earth Environment Stable Isotope Laboratories (Australian National University).


Cosgrove, R., Field, J., Garvey, J., Brenner-Coltrain, J., Goede, A., Charles, B., Wroe, S., Pike-Tay, A., Grün, R., Aubert, M., Lees, W., O’Connell, J., 2010. Overdone overkill – the archaeological perspective on Tasmanian megafaunal extinctions. Journal of Archaeological Science 37, 2486–2503.

Pike-Tay, A., Cosgrove, R., Garvey, J., 2008. Systematic seasonal land use by late Pleistocene Tasmanian Aborigines. Journal of Archaeological Science 35, 2532–2544.

Chickens from Beyond the Grave

We’re continuing our series of posts this month with a piece by Elizabeth Farebrother, who is currently working towards her PhD at University College London investigating changing animal use in Western Asia during the Neolithic and Bronze Ages. Here, she shares her MSc research, which was part of the ongoing, multidisciplinary Chicken Project. Thanks to Liz and the Chicken Project Team for contributing!

An Integrated Faunal-centric approach to Stable Isotope Analysis at Wien-Csokorgasse Cemetery   

The integration of zooarchaeological research and stable isotope analysis can be incredibly insightful, allowing us to go beyond traditional research questions, and investigate, where relevant, socially-grounded questions from a scientific perspective. My introduction to the world of stable isotope research came through the AHRC-funded Chicken Project, and my MSc formed part of this ongoing collaborative research initiative to investigate human-fowl interaction.

Belle, a Nottingham local

Belle, a Nottingham local.

Wien-Csokorgasse – an Avar-period (6th-8th Century AD) cemetery site – is located in Vienna, Austria, and was excavated as a rescue operation in the 1970s. Zooarchaeologist Henriette Kroll carried out the faunal analysis for the site, and noted that the deposition of chickens within human burial contexts was both sexually, and hierarchically stratified; cocks were buried with males and hens were buried with females. Significantly, the length of each cockerel’s tarsometatarsus spur also corresponded with the inferred status of the human burial (Kroll, 2013).

Chicken bone is demineralised in order to extract the collagen for isotopic analysis.

Chicken bone is demineralised in order to extract the collagen for isotopic analysis.

To investigate the potential reasons for the inclusion of chickens within burials at Wien-Csokorgasse, carbon and nitrogen isotope ratios from the bone collagen of each bird were analysed and compared with the existing stable isotope study of the humans they were buried with (Herold, 2008). Prospective indicators for dietary differentiation, including biological sex, age, and cemetery chronology were explored. Perhaps the most striking result was the dietary correlation represented by δ15N values. This dietary signature would have built up in the bone collagen over differing life spans between human and chicken. To this end, the data suggest a significant overlapping period of time where each chicken may have lived alongside the human individual they were buried with.

Preliminary carbon and nitrogen isotope results for human burials and associated chickens.

Preliminary carbon and nitrogen isotope results for human burials and associated chickens.

The results of dietary stable isotope analysis were viewed through the lens of anthropological analogy, and interpretation included a diachronic survey of published and grey literature of contemporary bird iconography and bird diet in Europe. This meant that the wider social implications and behavioural patterns amongst the groups who used Wien-Csokorgasse were also considered in the study.


Thank you to all involved in the production of this MSc dissertation. This study would not have been possible without the help and expert guidance of the AHRC-funded Chicken Project, Dr Naomi Sykes, Dr Holly Miller, Dr Henriette Kroll, the NERC Isotope Geosciences Laboratory (BGS Keyworth) and the University of Nottingham.


Herold, M. (2008) ‘Sex Differences in Mortality in Lower Austria and Vienna in the Early Medieval Period’ Doctoral dissertation, University of Vienna.

Kroll, H. (2013) ‘Ihrer Hühner waren drei und ein stolzer Hahn dabei: Überlegungen zur Beigabe von Hühnern im awarischen Gräberfeld an der Wiener Csokorgasse.’ in von Carnap-Bornheim, C., Dörfler, W., Kirleis, W., Müller, J. and Müller, U. (eds.) Festschrift für Helmut Johannes Kroll. Offa 69/70.


Rethinking Mycenaean Economy

Stable isotope analysis in zooarchaeology is an exciting–and growing–research area, with the potential to inform and expand on  a multitude of questions about humanity in the past, present, and future.

Part of the mission of the working group and the purpose of our blog is to share ongoing research in this area with a wider audience. To that end, we’re launching a series of posts on current projects combining zooarchaeology and stable isotope analysis in innovative ways around the world and in all time periods. If you would like to contribute a post on your research, you can email suzanne_birch [at] Comments and questions on posts are welcomed and encouraged!

Our first post is by Gypsy Price, who is currently a PhD candidate in the Anthropology Department at the University of Florida. Her research uses stable isotope analysis to reveal differences in faunal economies in early complex societies, specifically Late Bronze Age (LBA) Mycenae, Greece. Thanks Gypsy!

Faunal Economy at Petsas House

View of Mycenae, with a plan of the citadel and location of Petsas House indicated by the red circle.

View of Mycenae, with a plan of the citadel and location of Petsas House indicated by the red circle.

Five years ago I got involved with the Petsas House Project, a domestic/industrial structure located downslope from the citadel of Mycenae dating to the Late Helladic III A2 (circa 1300 BC). Around the same time I had become increasingly captivated by Galaty and Parkinson’s “Rethinking Mycenaean Palaces” series which critically examined the extent, degree, and manner of economic authority engendered by Mycenaean palaces. Bottom line, the majority of our knowledge about Mycenaean economy is based on Linear B tablets, which are geographically, temporally, and topically restricted: they have only been recovered from a handful of palatial sites, and record only transactions of interest to palatial administration occurring in the months prior to their deposition. As a result, economic models have been constructed from the top down, resulting in a myopic sense of the movement of resources within the larger society and an artificial inflation of the influence of the palace.

Through isotopic survey, we can discern feeding groups that may be indicative of disparities in provisioning or foddering strategies, and patterns of importation of animals. It was here where I realized that the extremely well-preserved and extensive faunal assemblage at Petsas House could offer a unique, micro-scalar perspective on management and distribution of faunal resources in an extra-palatial industrial/domestic context with a palatial settlement. Furthermore, there was an available contemporaneous faunal assemblage which had been previously excavated from the Cult Center, an ideological complex located within the walls of the hilltop citadel.

Gypsy Price with Petsas House materials

Gypsy Price with Petsas House materials.

Thus, with the invaluable support of Dr. Kim Shelton (UC Berkeley) and my committee chair, Dr. John Krigbaum (University of Florida), my PhD research was born. My sample set includes four main species known to have been purposefully managed during the LBA: goat, sheep, cow, and pig/wild boar. I am using carbon (δ13C), nitrogen (δ15N), and oxygen (δ18O) ratios from bone collagen and bone apatite fractions to identify discrete inter- and intra-taxonomic feeding groups. Strontium (87Sr/86Sr) and oxygen (δ18O) isotope ratios from bone and serially sampled teeth are being used to identify season movement patterns and to look for evidence of extra-local individuals which may be indicative of importation. I am currently in the process of interpreting the structured variation in these data to elucidate some of the nuances of LBA Mycenaean faunal economy, allowing us to develop a “ground-truthed” model of management and distribution between disparate sectors of a single LBA Mycenaean palatial settlement for the first time.