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.

     

     

     


    Steve Baragona

    Steve Baragona is an award-winning multimedia journalist covering science, environment and health.

    He spent eight years in molecular biology and infectious disease research before deciding that writing about science was more fun than doing it. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a master’s degree in journalism in 2002.

    You May Like

    US, Somalia Launch New Chapter in Relations

    US sends first ambassador to Somalia in 25 years; diplomatic presence and forces pulled out in 1993, after 18 US soldiers were killed when militiamen shot down military helicopter

    Brexit Vote Ripples Across South Asia

    Experts say exit is likely to have far-reaching economic, political and social implications for a region with deep historic ties to Britain

    Russian Military Tests Readiness With Snap Inspections

    Some observers see surprise drill as tit-for-tat response to NATO’s recent multinational military exercises in Baltic region

    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.
    Testing Bamboo as Building Materiali
    X
    June 27, 2016 9:06 PM
    For thousands of years various species of bamboo - one of the world's most versatile plants - have been used for diverse purposes ranging from food and medicine to textiles and construction. But its use on a large scale is hampered because it's not manufactured to specific standards but grown in the ground. A University of Pittsburgh professor is on track to changing that. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Testing Bamboo as Building Material

    For thousands of years various species of bamboo - one of the world's most versatile plants - have been used for diverse purposes ranging from food and medicine to textiles and construction. But its use on a large scale is hampered because it's not manufactured to specific standards but grown in the ground. A University of Pittsburgh professor is on track to changing that. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Orphanage in Iraqi City Houses Kids Who Lost their Parents to Attacks by IS

    An orphanage in Iraqi Kurdistan has become home to scores of Yazidi children who lost their parents after Islamic State militants took over Sinjar in Iraq’s Nineveh Province in 2014. Iraqi Kurdish forces backed by the U.S. airstrikes have since recaptured Sinjar but the need for the care provided by the orphanage continues. VOA’s Kawa Omar filed this report narrated by Rob Raffaele.
    Video

    Video Re-Opening Old Wounds in a Bullet-Riddled Cultural Landmark

    A cultural landmark before Lebanon’s civil war transformed it into a nest of snipers, Beirut’s ‘Yellow House’ is once again set to play a crucial role in the city.  Built in a neo-Ottoman style in the 1920s, in September it is set to be re-opened as a ‘memory museum’ - its bullet-riddled walls and bunkered positions overlooking the city’s notorious ‘Green Line’ maintained for posterity. John Owens reports from Beirut.
    Video

    Video Brexit Resounds in US Presidential Contest

    Britain’s decision to leave the European Union is resounding in America’s presidential race. As VOA’s Michael Bowman reports, Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump sees Britain’s move as an affirmation of his campaign’s core messages, while Democrat Hillary Clinton sees the episode as further evidence that Trump is unfit to be president.
    Video

    Video New York Pride March A Celebration of Life, Mourning of Loss

    At this year’s march in New York marking the end of pride week, a record-breaking crowd of LGBT activists and allies marched down Manhattan's Fifth Avenue, in what will be long remembered as a powerful display of solidarity and remembrance for the 49 victims killed two weeks ago in an Orlando gay nightclub.
    Video

    Video NASA Juno Spacecraft, Nearing Jupiter, to Shed Light on Gas Giant

    After a five-year journey, the spacecraft Juno is nearing its destination, the giant planet Jupiter, where it will enter orbit and start sending data back July 4th. As Mike O'Sullivan reports from Pasadena, California, the craft will pierce the veil of Jupiter's dense cloud cover to reveal its mysteries.
    Video

    Video Orlando Shooting Changes Debate on Gun Control

    It’s been nearly two weeks since the largest mass shooting ever in the United States. Despite public calls for tighter gun control laws, Congress is at an impasse. Democratic lawmakers resorted to a 1960s civil rights tactic to portray their frustration. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti explains how the Orlando, Florida shooting is changing the debate.
    Video

    Video Tunisian Fishing Town Searches for Jobs, Local Development Solutions

    As the European Union tries to come to grips with its migrant crisis, some newcomers are leaving voluntarily. But those returning to their home countries face an uncertain future.  Five years after Tunisia's revolution, the tiny North African country is struggling with unrest, soaring unemployment and plummeting growth. From the southern Tunisian fishing town of Zarzis, Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at a search for local solutions.
    Video

    Video 'American Troops' in Russia Despite Tensions

    Historic battle re-enactment is a niche hobby with a fair number of adherents in Russia where past military victories are played-up by the Kremlin as a show of national strength. But, one group of World War II re-enactors in Moscow has the rare distinction of choosing to play western ally troops. VOA's Daniel Schearf explains.
    Video

    Video Muslim American Mayor Calls for Tolerance

    Syrian-born Mohamed Khairullah describes himself as "an American mayor who happens to be Muslim." As the three-term mayor of Prospect Park, New Jersey, he believes his town of 6,000 is an example of how ethnicity and religious beliefs should not determine a community's leadership. Ramon Taylor has this report from Prospect Park.
    Video

    Video Internal Rifts Over Syria Policy Could Be Headache for Next US President

    With the Obama administration showing little outward enthusiasm for adopting a more robust Syria policy, there is a strong likelihood that the internal discontent expressed by State Department employees will roll over to the next administration. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports.
    Video

    Video Senegal to Park Colorful ‘Cars Rapides’ Permanently

    Brightly painted cars rapide are a hallmark of Dakar, offering residents a cheap way to get around the capital city since 1976. But the privately owned minibuses are scheduled to be parked for good in late 2018, as Ricci Shryock reports for VOA.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora