Skip to main content

Turkey day

Rosemary Joyce, professor of anthropology | November 24, 2010

The traditional Thanksgiving meal– turkey, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie– is a commemorative meal. This every school child learns.

But the history of that meal goes far further back than 1621. And the story it tells is far broader than the New England tale that will be retold all over the US tomorrow.

Take turkeys. Wild turkeys were hunted throughout the eastern woodlands in the seventeenth century. But long before then, people of the Puebloan Southwest and Mexico had domesticated the turkey.

This year brought news about turkey domestication that substantially changed what we know.

As reported in February, new studies of turkey DNA at sites in the US Southwest found that turkeys were domesticated by around 800 BC, somewhere in Mexico.

Those early turkeys, though, were apparently not domesticated for their meat, but for their feathers– one of many kinds of birds whose plumage was used to ornament dress.

The authors of the research paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academic of Sciences, argue that there was a second center where turkeys were domesticated in the Southwest US much later, around 200 BC. Again, the likely reason for the domestication was for feathers.

It isn’t until 1100 AD in the US Southwest that these researchers think domestic turkeys began to be cultivated as a food source.

Think about this when you are having your turkey today. Benjamin Franklin’s famous endorsement of the turkey as a national symbol in place of the bald eagle, contained in a letter to his daughter written on January 26, 1784 is not that far off the original impetus for the domestication of this bird by the original inhabitants of the Americas:

…in truth, the turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America…He is, besides (thought a little vain and silly, it is true, but not the worse emblem for that), a bird of courage, and would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his farmyard with a red coat on.

A bird of courage; a respectable bird. And a handsome one long-established in Mexico and North America.

Comments to “Turkey day

  1. That’s interesting. I never thought about turkeys existing before the first thanksgiving. I wonder what people ate on Christmas in the UK before 1500.
    John Edwards

  2. My wife and I got off eating animals a few years ago. We are not vegetarians at all but eat primarily plants. This Turkey Day we went to my cousins house. She initially did not invite us. When she did she said, “You know we are going to be eating turkey?” I have found our lifestyle seriously hampers dinner invitations.

  3. How interesting! I never knew that turkeys dated all the way back to 800 BC, are turkeys in America breeded differently to that of the UK though?


    • All turkeys around the globe can be traced back to the Americas. Like other plants and animals that spread through what Alfred Crosby called “the Columbian Exchange”, once out of their zone of origin, turkeys were subject to selective breeding by farmers, which means that while all turkeys in the world are cousins, they include groups with very different appearances and features prized by different human groups.

      According to The Turkey Club UK, turkeys appeared in England in 1524, brought from Spain. This was the ancestor of the Norfolk Black turkey. The black color was a trait selected for in Europe. It was not common in the Americas.

      This was a surprisingly early date from my perspective. So I poked around and found a research paper you can download from the web, by R.D. Crawford, published in 1992. (So, the part about prehispanic turkey domestication is out of date.) Crawford says

      In 1499 Pedro Alonso Niño is said to have discovered turkeys on the coast of Cumana, Tierra Ferme (present day Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama) and to have taken them to Europe in 1500. However, Schorger’s (1966) map of domestic turkey distribution in the 16th century shows some on the Pacific coast of Cumana but none on the Atlantic side…In 1502 Christopher Columbus landed on the coast of Honduras where he was given gallinas de la tierra which very likely were turkeys.

      This was of special interest to me, since a student working with me on collections curated at Harvard, excavated in the 1930s, identified what still are the only archaeologically detected remains of a turkey in Honduras, dating to between 1000 and 1300 AD.

      Crawford says the first known record of the turkey in Spain is from 1511 and 1512. It is only after Hernan Cortes began his campaign in Mexico, though, in 1519, that turkeys were commonly mentioned in Spanish sources. Crawford says that the earliest confirmed dates for turkeys in England are somewhat later than the breeder websites: 1541.

  4. Thanks, Gary, and enjoy time with your family– I am spending my day with four brothers and their wives, and six nieces and nephews, so I definitely endorse your final point.

  5. Interesting article about “Turkey Day”!

    My extended family used to always expect us to drive to their house (they’re out of state) for Thanks Giving, but one Thanks Giving about 3 years ago my wife, myself and our 2 kids were not able to go anywhere.

    We ended up going to Kroger at the last minute to buy a pre-made full blown T-Day dinner and we enjoyed it so much that it has turned into one of the most enjoyable family bonding times of the whole year for us!!

    Thanks for this rare info and for allowing me to give my 2 cents 🙂

    Love your families.


Comments are closed.