Turkey DNA helps scientists track Mesa Verde migration

"This is a new line of evidence suggesting a strong connection between contemporary Tewa Pueblo people in New Mexico and the Pueblo people who lived in Mesa Verde," said researcher Scott Ortman.
By Brooks Hays   |   Aug. 10, 2017 at 3:10 PM
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Aug. 10 (UPI) -- Sometime in the late 13th century, the Ancestral Puebloans of Colorado's Mesa Verde abandoned their homes, ending roughly 700 years of continuous human occupation.

Until now, the details of the exodus haven't been clear. But analysis of DNA from domestic turkey remains has offered archaeologists new insights into the timing and trajectory of the mass migration.

When scientists analyzed turkey remains found in Colorado and northern New Mexico, they found strong genetic links, suggesting most Puebloans migrated to the northern Rio Grande region, north of Santa Fe, in the wake of the collapse of the Mesa Verde culture. The migration took place between 1277 and 1285.

"This is a new line of evidence suggesting a strong connection between contemporary Tewa Pueblo people in New Mexico and the Pueblo people who lived in Mesa Verde country before its collapse," Scott Ortman, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, said in a news release.

An analysis of wild turkey remains in Mesa Verde confirmed the timing of the migration. Wild turkey populations there did not absorb a genetic influx, suggesting the Puebloans took their turkeys with them when they left.

Geophysical records suggest a drought beginning in 1277 exacerbated decades of resource depletion. At its peak, the Mesa Verde settlements housed some 30,000 people. As its population grew during the 13th century, the Ancestral Puebloans of Mesa Verde came to rely almost exclusively on organized farming, making them susceptible to the effects of prolonged drought.

A combination of drought, resource depletion and social upheaval saw the Mesa Verde culture collapse. The latest findings -- detailed in the journal PLOS ONE -- suggests the native peoples related to northern New Mexico.

"The argument we are making is that a sizable chunk of the Mesa Verde population moved to the northern Rio Grande region," Ortman said. "And this group of migrants stimulated the formation of the Tewa Pueblo people that live in the area."

Researchers have previously used geophysical, biological, linguistic and archaeological evidence to trace the exodus of the Mesa Verde peoples, but the latest research was the first to involve DNA analysis.

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