Mesa Verde photo by Nagel Photography

DNA of domesticated turkeys kept by the Pueblo people may hold key

History is filled with unsolved mysteries from civilizations past, including the eventual destination of the Mesa Verde Pueblo people after they disappeared from their cliff dwellings in southwestern Colorado. Drought forced them to abandon their homes, and archaeologists have been debating where they went for more than a century.

photo by Jeffrey B. Banke

Assistant professor Scott Ortman of CU Boulder recently helped with a big piece of the puzzle, using the DNA of domesticated turkeys kept by the Pueblo people. Turkey bones that were buried in the Mesa Verde area turned out to be a mitochondrial DNA match for turkey bones found in the northern Rio Grande region, north of Santa Fe, N.M. Because mitochondrial DNA is maternally passed down through generations, these findings indicate that the turkeys found buried in New Mexico were descendants of those buried in the Mesa Verde region. It stands to reason that the Mesa Verde inhabitants took their livestock with them when they migrated, so the turkey bones suggest that the Pueblo people settled in the northern Rio Grande area. This method of tracking a group of people by the remains of their domesticated animals has precedent in Old World applications, but Ortman believes this is the first time it’s been used in a New World context.

In light of these new findings, why is the mystery still considered unsolved? Ortman says, “The patterns we found are consistent with a model in which the majority of Mesa Verde people moved to the northern Rio Grande, but it does not prove this model. More studies, using a wider range of genetic markers from samples from additional areas, are needed to really nail this down.”

—by Sara Bruskin