Turkey, Turkey, Turkey …

I once impressed my late mother-in-law by deboning the Thanksgiving turkey (which is actually quite straightforward). The faces of the guests when you carve across the carcass are worth seeing! But I really hadn’t given much thought to this most edible of birds or its long history, until a recent genetic study brought them to the centre of the historical stage. DNA samples show that the commercial turkey of today’s dinner table is ultimately of pre-Aztec origin, domesticated in South-Central Mexico, where wild birds were tamed about 2,000 years ago. The Spanish carried Aztec turkeys to Europe during the 1500s, where they were a huge hit. Then European varieties were soon developed, which made their way across the Atlantic to the eastern United States in the 1700s and became the forerunners of today’s Thanksgiving birds. All this is quite straightforward historically, but what about the turkeys that were domesticated in the Southwest from perhaps now extinct wild forms at about the time of Christ? Two research teams have compared mitochondrial DNA (inherited through the female line) from bones and faeces found in 38 Ancestral Pueblo sites from the Four Corners region of the Colorado Plateau archaeological sites with that from modern birds. They have proved conclusively that the Southwest was a second centre of turkey domestication. However, until about 1100, these birds were raised not for their flesh but for their feathers, which were used in rituals, also for feather robes or blankets.

Running Maya water

Running water delivered to the home? Such a luxury seems unprecedented for the ancient Maya. But the great centre at Palenque in Chiapas thrived in a water-saturated environment, where the problem was not storing water, but getting rid of it. Palenque’s founders probably chose the location because of its abundant water supplies. The ancient name of the site is Lakamha, ‘Wide Waters’, perhaps after the Otolum stream that passes through Palenque’s centre. The watercourse originated in a spring so important that the Maya erected a temple nearby. Otolum was a powerful symbol of water emerging from a cave – the notion of a ‘water mountain’.

Twelve of the springs that rise within the site are associated with structures that are thus transformed into watery mountains. Nine separate watercourses flowed through the city. Instead of developing reservoirs, Palenque’s architects constructed underground channels to carry water away from the urban landscape, not to capture it. One of them was narrowed and carefully plastered, so much so that it must have shot a water jet 6m into the air. With such water pressure close to hand, the palace could have had running water.

In places, Palenque’s architects built aqueducts, some of them underground, so that they could make efficient use of the limited area of flat terrain for plazas. Such drainage allowed much larger numbers of people to crowd into open spaces. Where the waters of Otolum leave the city wall, an enormous effigy of a caiman with jagged teeth stands on the east side of the channel. Local tradition records that if you want to keep water flowing on your fields, you need to import a small caiman to live in the spring to maintain its productivity. Oral records tell us that a gigantic caiman lives at the centre of the sky. He crouches expectantly. When a human prays for water, he opens his mouth and torrents of water escape. So the caiman at the end of the Palenque channel and aqueduct symbolically releases the water into the canyon for those who need it.

Artefact Suicides

In June 2009, the federal authorities charged 24 people in San Juan County, Utah, with looting archaeological sites on a large scale. The case came about when an antiquities dealer named Ted Gardiner discovered that many of the artefacts that he handled were purloined illegally. He turned FBI informant and purchased $334,000-worth of bowls, pendants, even a turkey-feather blanket, from sellers throughout the Southwest, who acknowledged they were dug up on Federal or Indian lands.

On June 16 2009, hundreds of federal agents arrested two dozen people across three states, some removed from their homes at gunpoint. Among them was Dr James Redd, a much-respected physician from Blanding in southeastern Utah, where 15 other defendants also lived. Many of the arrested individuals were profoundly traumatised. Two of them, Dr Redd and Steven Shrader, subsequently committed suicide. A few weeks ago, Ted Gardiner, now reviled in the small towns where he had lived and profoundly stressed by his role as an informant, ended his life with a gunshot.

No question, this was looting on a grand scale. Federal agents used two vans to remove 800 artefacts from the Redd home and are now puzzling over how to distribute the material to its native American owners or museums. However, the arrests, perceived by many people as heavy handed, and suicides have raised questions as to how one handles such cases. Much of the defence hangs on the reality that people living in the Southwest have collected artefacts for years. Even today, many of them, especially in rural communities, do not consider themselves criminals, despite well-publicised protective legislation covering archaeological sites on federal and tribal lands. (Archaeological sites on private property in the United States have no protection under law, unlike most other countries.) It will be difficult for the authorities to prosecute these cases after the suicides and in the face of hostile local public opinion. And, given the enormous prices that Southwestern artefacts face on the flourishing antiquities market, it will be hard to prevent further occurrences when the penalties are usually no more than probation, a fine, or a minor slap on the wrist.

Looting of archaeological sites is intolerable behaviour anywhere, let alone in a country where most history of an important segment of society is recorded almost entirely in the archaeological record – this quite apart from the issues of respecting the dead. The question of surprisingly undebated questions: how do you change ingrained cultural behaviour, especially in an environment where many people, consciously or unconsciously, think of native American archaeology as the history of ‘them’, not us? The debate is still unfolding.


This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 41. Click here to subscribe

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