Thanksgiving is perhaps the perfect holiday, because it is focused on food. Most importantly, it is focused on turkey, with a delicious supporting cast of cranberry sauce, stuffing, yams, mashed potatoes, and corn. After the first round of feasting, you may find yourself in your favorite comfy chair watching the football game unfold on the television. Take a moment to consider the origins of the delicious fowl that was the perfect centerpiece to an excellent meal.
Far from just being carcass on your table, turkeys have an interesting past. Wild turkeys, along with Muscovy ducks, are the only two birds native to the Americas that have been domesticated. Wild turkeys had a wide range, spanning southeastern Canada to the eastern and southwestern United States to northern Mexico. Ample evidence of their remains (think wishbones!) is evident in the archeological record. Using evidence from these records, scientists know that turkeys were domesticated at two locations – the southwestern United States and northern Mexico.
Until recently, most scientists dated turkey domestication to around 900 CE. However, new archaeological evidence collected from the Jaguar Paw Temple located in El Mirador, Guatemala found domesticated turkey remains dating to 325 BCE, more than 1,000 years earlier than we’d previously believed.
Wild turkeys are not native to southern Central America. So how the heck did the birds get all the way to Guatemala? In short, turkeys were a hot commodity along the Mesoamerican trade route. Different groups in northern Mexico domesticated plants and animals and plied their wares along the trade routes of their time. What may surprise you is the reason for the turkey trade. Hint: It is not for the succulent flesh (in fact, most protein consumed during this time came from wild sources not domesticated animals). The groups traded turkeys for their feathers to make robes and blankets for use in rituals and ceremonies. Even more surprising, the groups skipped the delicious roasted turkey flesh and used the birds for sacrificial offerings, as evidenced by the presence of the fossils at the Jaguar Paw Temple.
Aren’t you glad you’re eating your turkey in a delicious meal instead of dealing with an outfit of turkey feathers? That’s really something to be thankful for.