Turkey DNA reveals Mesa Verde denizens moved to New Mexico

by Mary Caperton Morton
Thursday, December 14, 2017

The Mesa Verde region of southern Colorado was home to as many as 30,000 Puebloans through the middle of the 13th century, until severe drought drove them south into New Mexico, ending the cliff dwellers' reign. In a new study, researchers have charted this mass migration using mitochondrial DNA from a novel source: turkey bones from the domesticated birds kept by Puebloans in both Mesa Verde and northern New Mexico.

In Mesa Verde, turkeys were a valuable source of insulating and decorative feathers, as well as meat, since at least A.D. 1000, and turkey bones are commonly found in the archaeological record there. A similar abundance of turkey remains has been found at sites in the Rio Grande region north of Santa Fe, N.M., dating from the late 13th century. Linguistic and cultural clues, including native oral traditions, indicate that the ancestors of the Tewa-speaking Pueblo people of New Mexico are likely the descendants of Mesa Verde’s cliff dwellers, but the new study, published in PLOS One, is the first to use DNA to make the connection. The mitochondrial DNA of the Rio Grande turkeys was genetically indistinguishable from the turkey DNA recovered from Mesa Verde, suggesting that when the Puebloans abandoned the cliff dwellings, they took their turkeys with them.

“This is a new line of evidence suggesting a strong connection between contemporary Tewa Pueblo people in New Mexico and the Pueblo people who lived in Mesa Verde country before its collapse,” said study co-author Scott Ortman of the University of Colorado Boulder in a statement.

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