The echoes of a thriving society that vanished without a trace some seven centuries ago may have been found in an unlikely place: the bones of ancient turkeys. In a new study, researchers may have solved the mystery of where the Ancestral Puebloan people of the southwest United States disappeared to in the 1200s.
In the Four Corners region of the United States, where Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado meet, it is hard not to see how there was once a bustling and complex society thriving in the American Southwest. Dotted across the region, archaeologists have found apartment-like complexes built and carved into the rocks and cliffs that define this region.
The extent and range of these astonishing dwellings show that the Ancestral Puebloans were crafting multistoried buildings, community spaces, and plazas, which were thought to have housed hundreds of thousands of people over time. But then, at some point in the 1200s, things suddenly changed, and the Ancestral Puebloans disappeared without a trace.
What happened to force them to abandon their communities and move out of their homelands is still not fully understood. It is thought that there was a combination of competition from Numic-speaking people who had recently arrived in the region and pressure from a changing climate causing their crops to fail.
Yet while we know that at some point everyone upped sticks, there is some debate as to where they actually moved to. The best guess so far, based on modern Puebloans oral history, is that they traveled to Rio Grande, although there is no conclusive evidence.
While genetic testing that compares modern Native Americans to the bones of Ancestral Puebloans and other native populations would be able to solve the mystery, many tribes in the region see this as a desecration of their ancestors. This latest study in PLOS One, therefore, had to think outside of the box.
The Ancestral Puebloans are known to have kept domestic turkeys, and the researchers reasoned that when the people migrated, they took their livestock with them. So they looked at the mitochondrial DNA of the birds that had lived in various regions before the Ancestral Puebloans moved and after.
They found that before the mass movement took place, the turkeys living in Mesa Verde in the Four Corners had a distinct genetic signature compared to those that were living at the same time in northern Rio Grande. But after 1200, they found that those birds in Rio Grande started sharing genetic similarities with those from Mesa Verde.
While this is still not 100 percent conclusive, as that would require genetic tests on people, it does hint at the fact that perhaps the old narratives of modern Puebloans are indeed accurate.