What happened to that turkey leg you had hidden in a dark corner of the refrigerator to be eaten on the day after Thanksgiving? What happened to the lost civilization known as the Ancestral Puebloans, who vanished without a trace in the late 1200s from what is now the Four Corners region of the U.S.? The answers to both may be found by following the DNA of turkeys. Wait, what?
The easy way to track lost civilizations is to look for human remains and analyze their DNA. That’s difficult – and understandably so – in parts of the U.S. where Native American tribes fiercely and religiously protect their dead and what’s left of the lands where they once lived. This is one big reason why the disappearance of the Ancestral Puebloans, who left behind a vast array of dwellings, has been so difficult to solve.
Enter the turkey. Scott Ortman (no, he’s not the turkey) is an anthropologist at the University of Colorado in Boulder who came up with the idea of studying the DNA of the animals that lived with the Ancestral Puebloans. According to the new study he co-authored in PLOS ONE, he and his fellow researchers looked at the hundreds of samples of well-preserved turkey bones found in the Ancestral Puebloans’ homeland near Mesa Verde, Colorado, and thought “Hmm … those bones have mitochondrial DNA from the maternal ancestors of those Mesa Verde turkeys that could be compared to turkey DNA in other areas to track where the Ancestral Puebloans took them to when they left.” Or something like that.
After identifying the mitochondrial DNA in Mesa Verde turkeys, they found it again in the northern Rio Grande where it replaced a different group of birds known as the – you guessed it — northern Rio Grande turkeys. The Mesa Verde turkey DNA showed up after around 1280, which is about the time the Ancestral Puebloans disappeared.
Whoa! Is this the missing link (or wishbone) that solves the mystery? The northern Rio Grande is now inhabited by Tewa Pueblo population who anthropologists have determined bear a striking facial resemblance to the Ancestral Puebloans. Ortman said in Science that he’s grateful to the people who found the ancient turkey bones and decided to keep and preserve them.
“I think our study is a good illustration of the value of curation. The people who collected these turkey bones had no idea that one day we would get DNA out of them and use them to answer questions about ancient human migration.”
So, how does this help you find your missing turnkey leg? You could check the trash for bones and match teeth marks with those of family members. Or you could look for DNA evidence – gravy stains – on shirts in the laundry.