Thanksgiving: Early Colonists Ate Turkey... But Also Horses, Rats and Snakes, Archaeologists Say

A turkey looks around its barn at Seven Acres Farm in North Reading, Massachusetts, U.S. Early North American colonists also ate the bird. Brian Snyder/Reuters

Archaeologists looking into the diet of colonists at the first English settlement in the Americas have discovered that they enjoyed a Turkey dinner—but that hard times also forced them to eat horses, rats and venemous snakes.

Archaeologists at Historic Jamestowne, the site of the early James Fort settlement in what is now Virginia, have been sorting through animal bones found onsite to establish the diet of the colonists who once lived there, the Williamsburg Yorktown Daily reported.

In 2006, researchers unearthed a well dating from the early 17th century, and are now beginning to sort through its contents, including food waste dumped into it after the well fell out of use.

By sorting and grouping animal bones found there, the archaeologists hope to discover new information about the way the colonists lived during the 1610s, in which period they believe the well was constructed.

"Hopefully we'll be able to use this information to fill in an important missing piece of the puzzle of Jamestown's History, which is what is going on in the sixteen-teens," Jamestown Rediscovery Assistant Curator Hayden Bassett told the Williamsburg Yorktown Daily. "We know a lot about 1607 through 1610, we know a lot about the 1620s on, but this has been a period that has been largely absent from our record to date."

The studies are in their early stages, but researchers have made at least one conclusive discovery: "They were consuming turkey," Environmental Archaeologist Joanne Bowen told the paper.

But, the paper said, researchers have also discovered animal bones dating back to meals colonists ate during the so-called "starving time" from 1609-10. These include horses, rats and snakes, all of which may have been eaten by ravenous colonists desperate for sustenance and unable to find any other source of meat.

The turkey, now popular as a thanksgiving meat in America and at Christmas in America, Britain and sometimes elsewhere in the West, is native to the Americas.

According to Science magazine, native Americans may have been domesticating Turkeys for food for almost 2,000 years. Even earlier, ancient inhabitants of modern-day Mexico were likely keeping the birds as long ago as 800 B.C.