Enlarge /. A segment of fiber twine wrapped in turkey feathers and a single down feather.
Indigenous pueblo populations in the American Southwest – ancestors of today's Hopi, Zuni, and Rio Grande Pueblo tribes – typically wove blankets, cloaks, and burial envelopes from animal skins, pelts, and turkey feathers. Washington State University (WSU) anthropologists examined one such old turkey feather blanket and found that thousands of those feathers wrapped around 200 yards of yucca fiber were made, according to a new article published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.
"Turkey feather blankets or robes as an insulating medium were widely used by the Ancestral Pueblo people in what is now the Highlands Southwest, but little is known of how they were made because so few such textiles have survived due to their perishable nature." said co-author Bill Lipe, professor emeritus of anthropology at WSU. "The aim of this study was to shed new light on the manufacture of turkey feather blankets and to examine the economic and cultural aspects of raising turkeys to nourish the feathers."
For their study, Lipe and his WSU colleague and co-author Shannon Tushingham examined a frame that was on display on the edge of the Cedars State Park Museum in Blanding, Utah. Even though insects had devoured the original feather wings and barbs, the shafts were still visible and wrapped around yucca fiber cords. They could also see a second, smaller blanket, the feathers of which were mostly intact. Both ceilings date from roughly the early 12th century AD.
According to the authors, such blankets were likely made from body feathers that cover the chest and back of turkeys. Such feathers have a visible "tail" and a downy portion – a key factor in how feathers keep turkeys and humans warm. Both the distal tips and the quills at the base are typically wrapped during the weaving process, exposing the fluffy portions. They are held together by rows of unwrapped yucca cords that make up the fabric of the blanket. They measured the length of cordage used to make the warps and wefts, the two components in weaving used to turn threads or yarns into fabric (lengthwise yarns are called warp yarns; transverse yarns are called wefts).
The blanket could have been created all at once, but the authors suspect that additional lengths of batches of cordage and feathers were likely added over time. However, they believe the feathers were added to the full warp cord before the final quilt took shape, "before the cord was repeatedly doubled back on itself to form the individual warp threads," they wrote.
They also counted the number of individual spring shafts on several segments of the warp threads. However, it was not possible to examine the feathers or ends of the feathers or the distal tips because they had become wrapped in adjacent feathers. Ultimately, the researchers estimated that approximately 11,500 turkey feathers would have been needed to make the quilt. "That estimate would of course change if different lengths of nib were used," they wrote, depending on the nibs available and the personal preferences of those who woven the quilt.
Enlarge /. Bill Lipe and Shannon Tushingham collect feathers from a turkey skin in Tushingham's laboratory at Washington State University in Pullman, Washington.
Washington State University
Next, the researchers obtained the skins of two adult male wild turkeys from skin and fur traders in Idaho in order to better estimate how many adult turkeys it would take to provide approximately 11,500 feathers. They concluded that such pelts would provide just over 2,700 feathers from an adult male turkey. From this they extrapolated that a blanket manufacturer would have to collect feathers from 4.26 adult men. However, with only 1,200 feathers per bird in the preferred size range, it may have taken 9.6 adult birds to collect enough feathers for the blanket. The good news: "Once a blanket was made, it would probably have taken a few years," the authors wrote.
Turkey feathers likely replaced strips of rabbit skin for blankets sometime during the first two centuries AD. "When the ancestral pueblo peasant populations flourished, there were likely many thousands of feather duvets in circulation at any given time," Tushingham said. "It is likely that every member of an ancestral Pueblo community, from infants to adults, owned one."
How the feathers were collected, Lipe and Tushingham gave three possibilities: the birds were killed and their feathers harvested; Feathers were collected during the birds' natural molting season; or humans selectively plucked ripe feathers from live turkeys. Turkeys did not become an important source of food in this region until between 1100 and 1200 AD, and even then they were usually killed before they were a year old – too early to harvest ripe feathers. In addition, "killing turkeys for their feathers is a wasteful strategy because it eliminates the possibility of harvesting feathers as a sustainable source of food," the authors wrote.
"Reverence for Turkeys"
Collection of feathers during the natural molting season is typically gradual over weeks or months. If the turkeys roam free it would be difficult to collect the best feathers, and if they were cooped up the feathers in the ground would be trampled – no doubt also covered with turkey droppings. (The authors note that modern wild turkeys produce 2.5 pounds of "fresh manure" per bird every week.) The authors therefore conclude that the most likely practice has been to selectively pluck feathers from live birds, which is right it is simple once the feathers have matured.
"When the blanket we analyzed for our study was being made, the birds that took care of the feathers were likely treated as important household individuals in the early 12th century and would have been completely buried," Lipe said. "This reverence for turkeys and their feathers is still evident today in pueblo dances and rituals. They are right up there where eagle feathers are symbolically and culturally important."
"Turkey was one of the few domesticated animals in North America until the Europeans arrived in the 1500s and 1600s," added Tushingham. "You had and still play a very culturally significant role in the lives of the Pueblo people, and we hope that this research will help shed light on this important relationship."
DOI: Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, 2020. 10.1016 / j.jasrep.2020.102604 (About DOIs).