Arts, Culture & Media

The Circuitous Journey of the Domesticated Turkey

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An ancient bowl features a turkey (Photo: Amerind Foundation)

Here's something you might not know about the centerpiece of your Thanksgiving meal. You probably think the turkey is as American as apple pie, or Thanksgiving itself.

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(This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the audio to hear it.)

Not true. The bird, or at least the commercial breeds available here in the United States, did not originate here. So where did the Thanksgiving turkey originate?

It turns out it was Mesoamerica (modern day southern Mexico), where the turkey began a long, circuitous journey over thousands of years before it made its way to the United States.

Here's the historical pathway: The bird was first domesticated by Aztecs 2500 years ago. Recent evidence suggests that Native Americans in the American Southwest , namely the Anasazi and Salado, also domesticated the turkey during that period.

Later, Spanish conquistadors arriving in Mesoamerica were taken by the bird's beauty and taste, so they hauled some turkeys (they weren't yet named turkeys) back with them to Spain in the 15th century. The majestic and delicious bird then spread across Europe, where they became known as "turkeys" and were bred and sold commercially.

Turkeys were then carried aboard European ships bound for America during the 17th century, where the Pilgrims and New England's early settlers encountered the bird. It became a regular feature of the Thanksgiving meal only after Thanksgiving was declared a national holiday by President Abraham Lincoln.

If all the geographic shifting around seems a bit confusing, take a listen to our interview with Brandon Keim who writes about the ancient journey of the domesticated turkey for Wired Science. Keim says Americans might give thanks this Thanksgiving holiday to the Aztecs and to the conquistadors who played an important historical role in delivering turkeys to your Thanksgiving table, and to the farmers who've carried on the long tradition of commercial breeding.

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