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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.