By the very early CE in the U.S. Upland Southwest, turkey feather blankets or robes began to replace those made with strips of rabbit fur. Feather blankets would have been important possessions of most members of Ancestral Pueblo communities. In a new study published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, researchers analyzed a 99 x 108 cm (39 x 42.5 inches) feather blanket dating approximately to the 1200s CE and found that it required over 180 m (590 feet) of yucca fiber cordage and an estimated 11,550 turkey feathers.
The production and wide use by Ancestral Pueblo people of robes or blankets made of turkey feathers wrapped around fiber warp cords were widespread in the portions of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona referred to as the Upland Southwest.
Here, Ancestral Pueblo settlements were commonly located at elevations above 1,700 m (5,577 feet), where winters were cold and nights cool even in the warmer seasons.
“Blankets or robes made with turkey feathers as the insulating medium were widely used by Ancestral Pueblo people in what is now the Upland Southwest, but little is known about how they were made because so few such textiles have survived due to their perishable nature,” said Professor Bill Lipe, a researcher in the Department of Anthropology at Washington State University.
“As Ancestral Pueblo farming populations flourished, many thousands of feather blankets would likely have been in circulation at any one time,” said Dr. Shannon Tushingham, also from the Department of Anthropology at Washington State University.
“It is likely that every member of an Ancestral Pueblo community, from infants to adults, possessed one.”
“The goal of the new study was to shed new light on the production of turkey feather blankets and explore the economic and cultural aspects of raising turkeys to supply the feathers,” Professor Lipe said.
The scientists counted body feathers from the pelts of wild turkeys purchased from ethically and legally compliant dealers in Idaho to get an estimate of how many turkeys would have been needed to provide feathers for the blanket.
Their efforts show it would have taken feathers from 4 to 10 turkeys, depending on the range of feather lengths selected.
Blanket feathers were probably most frequently collected from live birds, although natural molts or recently killed birds may have contributed.
This would have allowed sustainable collection of feathers several times a year over a bird’s lifetime, which could have exceeded 10 years.
“When the blanket we analyzed for our study was made, we think in the early 1200s CE, the birds that supplied the feathers were likely being treated as individuals important to the household and would have been buried complete,” Professor Lipe said.
“This reverence for turkeys and their feathers is still evident today in Pueblo dances and rituals. They are right up there with eagle feathers as being symbolically and culturally important.”
William D. Lipe et al. Staying warm in the upland southwest: A ‘supply side’ view of turkey feather blanket production. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, published November 25, 2020; doi: 10.1016/j.jasrep.2020.102604