News / USA

US Thanksgiving Turkey Hails from Mexico

The Thanksgiving turkey has made a circular journey, from its origins in Mexico to Europe and back to North America. (Alison Klein/VOA)
The Thanksgiving turkey has made a circular journey, from its origins in Mexico to Europe and back to North America. (Alison Klein/VOA)

Thanksgiving is the quintessential American holiday and roast turkey is the definitive centerpiece of the holiday feast.

But the domesticated turkey is not an American invention.

It's Mexican.

The bird was first domesticated in Mesoamerica, what is now Mexico, at around 800 B.C., says Julie Long, a turkey researcher with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"The Mesoamericans had turkey meat all the time," she says.

Enter the Spanish

When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the 1500s, "They discovered these domesticated turkeys, which were a lot better than the birds they were eating in Europe," Long says.

The Spanish were used to eating birds like peacocks, pretty to look at, but not much meat on them.

US Thanksgiving Turkey Is Mexican Immigrant
US Thanksgiving Turkey Is Mexican Immigranti
|| 0:00:00
...
 
🔇
X


"Those are just sort of scrawny little birds," she says. "And, of course, chickens at that time were scrawny little birds."

Compared to a nice, meaty turkey, it was no contest.

Turkey conquers Europe

Along with corn, peppers and tomatoes, the Spanish took turkeys back to Europe with them.

Over the next 100 years, turkeys spread from Spain to Holland and all the way up to England, where goose was the traditional English Christmas feast until turkey came to town.

"To the English at the time, they thought they tasted better than a goose," Long says. "So at Christmas you would actually be doing very well if you got a turkey as opposed to a goose."

Back to the Americas

From 17th-century England, turkeys made their way back to the Americas. English settlers brought the birds and other livestock with them to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1630s.

A decade or so earlier, when the Pilgrims landed in nearby Plymouth, they found the woods were already full of wild turkeys, distant cousins of the birds domesticated in Mesoamerica.

Pilgrim writings "refer to turkeys as being ‘fat and sweet,’" says Kathleen Wall, a colonial food expert at the Plimoth Plantation museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts. She says the birds also made for easy hunting.

"You can go out at twilight and the turkeys roost in trees and you can shoot them off their roost. They sit still while you shoot at them," Wall says.

Wild turkeys decline

Fat, sweet and easy to shoot, it didn't take long before colonists like Gov. William Bradford started writing about the wild turkey's decline.

"One of the things he mentions in the 1640s is how things that were so abundant in 1620 and in 1630 are suddenly disappearing," Wall says.

By the late 1640s, it was a good idea to raise domesticated turkeys because the wild birds were getting harder to find.

Their populations continued to decline as America moved west, hitting a low point in the 1930s.

Recovery

Conservation efforts in the late 20th century started bringing the wild turkey back. Wall says there are enough of them today that occasional attacks on suburbanites are reported.

One turkey that repeatedly attacked a Massachusetts postman had to be forcibly relocated.

As for the original Mexican wild turkey - the great-great grandfather of today's Thanksgiving bird - the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Long says it's probably extinct.

"There are some turkeys that are down there that exist on preserves," she says. "But nobody knows for sure whether those are the original wild birds."

But its descendents live on at the heart of the American Thanksgiving celebration.

 

 

 

You May Like

Photogallery South Africa Bans Travelers From Ebola-stricken Countries

South Africans returning from affected West African countries will be thoroughly screened, required to fill out medical questionnaire, health minister says More

Multimedia UN Launches ‘Biggest Aid Operation in 30 Years’ in Iraq

Move aims to help thousands of Iraqi religious minorities who fled their homes as Kurdish, Iraqi government forces battle Sunni insurgents More

Video African Media Tries to Educate Public About Ebola

IT specialists, together with radio and TV reporters, are battling misinformation and prejudice about disease More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Jay Brodell from: Cota Rica
November 21, 2012 8:40 PM
Well before the Spanish arrival the turkey was domesticated and provided food for the natives of the Southwest U.S. So maybe they came from Mexico into what is now the U.,S. or maybe they traveled south.

They are plenty of turkey bones at Mesa Verde in the Four Corner region.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Gaza Conflict, Hamas Popularity Challenge Abbasi
X
Scott Stearns
August 21, 2014 9:20 PM
The Palestinian unity government of Mahmoud Abbas has failed to convince Hamas to agree to Egyptian-negotiated terms with Israel on a Gaza cease-fire. VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports on what the Gaza conflict means for President Abbas, with whom U.S. officials have worked for years on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Video

Video Gaza Conflict, Hamas Popularity Challenge Abbas

The Palestinian unity government of Mahmoud Abbas has failed to convince Hamas to agree to Egyptian-negotiated terms with Israel on a Gaza cease-fire. VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports on what the Gaza conflict means for President Abbas, with whom U.S. officials have worked for years on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Video

Video Nigeria's 'Nollywood' Movie Industry Rolls in High Gear

Twenty years after its birth in a video shop in Lagos, Nigeria's "Nollywood" is one of the most prolific film industries on earth. Despite low budgets and whirlwind production schedules, Nigerian films are wildly popular in Africa and industry professionals say they hope, in the future, their films will be as great in quality as they are in quantity. Heather Murdock has more for VOA from Lagos.
Video

Video UN Launches 'Biggest Aid Operation in 30 Years' in Iraq

The United Nations has launched what it describes as one of the biggest aid operations in 30 years in northern Iraq, as hundreds of thousands of refugees flee the extremist Sunni militant group calling itself the Islamic State. As Kurdish and Iraqi forces battle the Sunni insurgents, the fighting has forced more people to flee their homes. Kurdish authorities say the international community must act now to avert a humanitarian catastrophe. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Cambodian American Hip Hop Artist Sings of Personal Struggles

A growing underground movement of Cambodian American hip hop artists is rapping about the struggles of living in urban America. Most, if not all of them, are refugees or children of refugees who came to the United States from Cambodia to escape the Khmer Rouge genocide of the 1970s. Through their music, the artists hope to give voice to immigrants who have been struggling quietly for years. Elizabeth Lee reports from Long Beach, California.
Video

Video African Media Tries to Educate Public About Ebola

While the Ebola epidemic continues to claim lives in West Africa, information technology specialists, together with radio and TV reporters, are battling misinformation and prejudice about the disease - using social media to educate the public about the deadly virus. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Ferguson Calls for Justice as Anger, Violence Grips Community

Violence, anger and frustration continue to grip the small St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri. Protests broke out after a white police officer fatally shot an unarmed black teenager on August 9. The case has sparked outrage around the nation and prompted the White House to send U.S. Attorney Eric Holder to the small community of just over 20,000 people. VOA’s Mary Alice Salinas has more from Ferguson.
Video

Video Beheading Of US Journalist Breeds Outrage

U.S. and British authorities have launched an investigation into an Islamic State video showing the beheading of kidnapped American journalist James Foley by a militant with a British accent. The extremist group, which posted the video on the Internet Tuesday, said the murder was revenge for U.S. airstrikes on militant positions in Iraq - and has threatened to execute another American journalist it is holding. Henry Ridgwell has more from London.
Video

Video Family Robots - The Next Big Thing?

Robots that can help us with daily chores like cooking and cleaning are a long way off, but automatons that serve as family companions may be much closer. Researchers in the United States, France, Japan and other countries are racing to build robots that can entertain and perform some simpler tasks for us. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video In Ukraine, Fear and Distrust Remain Where Fighting has Stopped

As the Ukrainian military reclaims control of eastern cities from pro-Russian separatists, residents are getting a chance to rebuild their lives. VOA's Gabe Joselow reports from the town of Kramatorsk in Donetsk province, where a sense of fear is still in the air, and distrust of the government in Kyiv still runs deep.
Video

Video Five Patients Given Experimental Ebola Drug Said to Be Improving

The World Health Organization has approved the use of experimental treatments for Ebola patients in West Africa. The Ebola outbreak there is unprecedented, the disease deadly. The number of people who have died from Ebola has surpassed 1,200. VOA's Carol Pearson reports on the ethical considerations of allowing experimental drugs to be used.
Video

Video China Targets Overseas Assets of Corrupt Officials

As China presses forward with its anti-graft effort, authorities are targeting corrupt officials who have sent family members and assets overseas. The efforts have stirred up a debate at home on exactly how many officials take that route and how likely it is they will be caught. Rebecca Valli has this report.
Video

Video Leading The Fight Against Islamic State, Kurds Question Iraqi Future

Western countries including the United States have begun arming the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in northern Iraq to aid their battle against extremist Sunni militants from the Islamic State. But there are concerns that a heavily-armed Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG, might seek to declare independence and cause the break-up of the Iraqi state. As Henry Ridgwell reports from London, the KRG says it will only seek greater autonomy from Baghdad.
Video

Video In Rural Kenya, Pressure Builds Against Female Circumcision

In some Kenyan communities, female genital mutilation remains a rite of passage. But activists are pushing back, with education for girls and with threats of punishment those who perform the circumcision. Mohammed Yusuf looks at the practice in the rural eastern community of Tharaka-Nithi.

AppleAndroid