Learning from leftovers: a history drawn from turkey bones

A PhD student at the University of Leicester will have a very different view of Christmas dinner from most people, because Brooklynne Fothergill is researching the history of turkey domestication by examining old turkey bones.

Brooklynne’s PhD is in palaeopathology, the study of disease in ancient remains. By studying the health of turkeys from different countries and different historical periods, she is able to draw conclusions about the people who farmed, cooked and ate them.

“As unimportant as animal bones may seem compared to beautiful ceramics or metal, they have the potential to reveal aspects of human life in the past that no other form of material can show us,” says Brooklynne, a Canadian-Irish student who has come to Leicester to study in the University’s School of Archaeology and Ancient History.

“Animal bones can be useful indicators of human diet. The presence of animals from far away tells us about long-distance trade. We can look into farming methods as well as attempting to work out how they were perceived by people in the past and what they may have symbolised.”

Turkeys originated in north and central America where they were domesticated by the Aztecs. Spanish explorers brought the birds to Europe in the 1500s and English colonists took them back in the 1600s. Domesticated turkeys were crossbred with wild American turkeys to create the various breeds in use today.

To the early American people, turkeys were enormously important says Brooklynne: “Turkey feathers were used for prayer sticks, blankets and clothing. They were associated with water and may have been used for sacrifices. There are even records of turkeys within human burials. There is a legend about the turkey having the feathers burned off of its head when it attempted to raise the sun. I also very much enjoy that an aspect of Tezcatlipoca, one of the main Aztec gods, was Chalchiuhtotolin, who appeared as a turkey.”


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